Breast flattening, also known as breast ironing, is the process during which young pubescent girls’ breasts are ironed, massaged, flattened and/or pounded down over a period of time (sometimes years) in order for the breasts to disappear or delay the development of the breasts entirely.
In some families, large stones, a hammer or spatula that have been heated over scorching coals can be used to compress the breast tissue. Other families may opt to use an elastic belt or binder to press the breasts so as to prevent them from growing.
Breast flattening usually starts with the first signs of puberty, which can be as young as nine years old and is usually carried out by female relatives.
It should also be acknowledged that some adolescent girls and boys may choose to bind their breast using constrictive material due to gender transformation or identity, and this may also cause health problems.
Breast Flattening can happen anywhere in the world, the map below represents the countries where research has been carried out. Just because a country is not highlighted, doesn’t mean it does not happen, it means there is no research in that area.
Health implications of Flattening
Due to the type of instruments that may be used, the type of force and the lack of aftercare, significant health and developmental issue may occur, such as:
- Tissue damage
- Discharge of milk
- Dissymmetry of the breasts
- Severe fever
- Even the complete disappearance of one or both breasts.
There will also be an impact on the child’s social and psychological well-being.
“My mother took a pestle, she warmed it well in the fire and then she used it to pound my breasts while I was lying down. She took the back of a coconut, warmed it in the fire and used it to iron the breasts. I was crying and trembling to escape but there was no way.” (Survivor)
“Justifications” for Breast Flattening
In many cases, the abuser thinks they are doing something good for the child by delaying the effects of puberty and the practice is designed to:
- make teenage girls look less “womanly”
- prevent pregnancy and rape
- enable the girl to continue her education
- prevent dishonour being brought upon the family if the girl begins sexual relations outside of marriage
- deter unwanted attention
“I started growing breasts when I was 10. My mother explained to my sister that I was growing breasts too early and that I would attract boys.” (Survivor)
“I wanted to go to school like other girls who had no breasts” (Survivor)
The Law for Breast Flattening
Although there is no specific law within the UK around breast flattening, it is a form of physical abuse and if professionals are concerned a child may be at risk of, or suffering significant harm, they must refer to their local safeguarding procedures.
The video below highlights the practice of Breast Ironing in the UK.
Signs that a girl could be at risk of Breast Flattening
- A girl is embarrassed about her body
- A girl is born to a woman who has undergone breast flattening
- A girl has an older sibling or cousin who has undergone breast flattening
- If there are references to breast flattening in conversation, for example a girl may tell other children about it
- A girl may request help from a teacher or another adult if she is aware or suspects that she is at immediate risk
- A girl from an affected community is withdrawn from PSHE and/or Sex and Relationship Education as her parents wish to keep her uninformed about her rights
- One or both parents or elder family members consider breast flattening integral to their cultural identity
- The family indicate that there are strong levels of influence held by elders who are involved in bringing up female children and support breast flattening
- A girl/family has limited level of integration within UK community
Signs that a girl is undergoing Breast Flattening
As well as the above, we should be mindful that:
- A girl may disclose to a teacher, social worker, GP or another medical professional.
- Some girls may ask for help, perhaps talk about pain or discomfort in their chest area, but may not be explicit about the problem due to embarrassment or fear
- A girl may display reluctance to undergo medical examination
- A girl may be fearful of changing for physical activities due to scars showing or bandages being visible
What to do if you are worried
If you are concerned that a girl is at risk of breast flattening, a referral must be made to the local children’s services team.
If you are concerned that the girl is in immediate danger, contact the police by calling 999.
You should also contact the Foreign and Commonwealth Office if the girl has been taken abroad:
- telephone: 020 7008 1500
- from overseas: +44 (0)20 7008 1500
Breast Ironing Resources
In this video, Lucy talks about her experience of undergoing Breast Ironing in Cameroon and the effect it has had on her.
This animation goes through what breast ironing is, the consequences and safeguarding duties of professionals.