In Cameroon, “breast ironing” is a custom in which various objects are heated and placed upon the budding breasts of a pre-teen girl in an attempt to halt development and in turn make her less attractive to men. Parents have continued this tradition usually performed by other family members or community healers for years, fearing that if they don’t their daughters will become sexually active and suffer a host of consequences as a result. But the practice has a number of risks, including breast cancer, cysts, and breastfeeding issues, not to mention its psychological toll — all of which VICE France delves into in a feature on what they call a “horrific” tradition.
A 2011 article by TV5Monde noted one out of 10 Cameroonian girls have had their breasts ironed, and in VICE France’s new report photographer Gildas Paré relays the first-hand experiences of the victims he featured for his series, Plastic Dreams. He titled the series as such because many of his subjects shared they would like to get plastic surgery to correct how their breasts now look. When asked to explain the ideology behind breast ironing, Paré said “The idea is that if your breasts don’t grow, men won’t be attracted to you. Mothers do it in the hope that their daughters won’t get pregnant and instead be able to continue their education. If no one’s attracted to them, they won’t end up getting married early.”
Paré said Cameroonian girls’ breasts are ironed starting at the age of eight years old. “Their family will wrap tight elastic bandages around their chest. They tighten them at night, sometimes during the day, too,” he explained. “Another technique is massaging the breasts with hot instruments. The assumption is that heating these tools and pressing them on the girls will melt the fat, which is completely insane. They use a wide variety of things in this process: pestles, wooden sticks, spatulas, spoons, and rocks. Most of the objects tend to belong to either their mothers or grandmothers.”
To help viewers understand the severity of this custom, Paré photographed 10 topless Cameroonian women who had their breasts ironed. He also asked them to share how the tradition affected them psychologically. Here are highlights from the interviews:
“My cousin raped me when I was 13 and I ended up giving birth to his child. I needed to produce milk but I no longer had breasts. We tried to use driver ants. When they sting you, your breasts inflate and it’s supposed to encourage milk production. I’ve had three children and, despite the ants, I haven’t been able to breastfeed any of them.” –Emmanuelle, 23 years old
“My breasts grew really fast. Like really, really fast. I was so ashamed. I wanted to hide them. People on the street would scream at me about my boobs. By my twenties, my breasts started to sag like those of a 50-year-old woman. I’m reluctant to undress in front of people. Sometimes, I keep my top on when I have sex with my boyfriend. I really resent my mother” – Gaëlle, 26 years old.
“Sometimes, I can’t breathe because the bandage is so tight. It scares me. I’ve had it on for a year. It’s really hot, so I get spots everywhere underneath it. I don’t understand why my mom does this.” –Manuella, nine years old.
Though this tradition may seem absurd, many African countries have belief systems that enforce the notion that women are to blame for enticing men. This ideology also makes women solely responsible for their own sexual assault attacks; therefore, allowing rape culture to be normalized. And while such tactics may not fly in developed world, its clear the idea of victim-blaming knows no borders.