This article was originally published on VICE France
"Breast ironing" is the Cameroonian custom of massaging young girls chests with hot tools – spatulas and pestles being the most common – in an attempt to flatten their developing breasts. This is done with the intention of postponing their first sexual relationships by making their bodies less attractive to men. Parents often fear that the girls won't finish their studies if they meet a man and become pregnant.
For the most part, the flattening is carried out by female family members, either at home or with the assistance of a healer. The process begins as soon as the girls hit puberty – for some, that means as early as eight years old. The consequences of this can be disastrous for the victim's health – cysts, breast cancer and breastfeeding issues are all common, not to mention the abundance of psychological consequences linked to the practice. According to a 2011 GIZ report, one out of every 10 Cameroonian girls has been subjected to breast ironing.
French photographer Gildas Paré recently travelled to Cameroon to photograph some of those victims and take note of their stories. We sat him down for a chat about his work and this traditional act of mutilation.
VICE: You were originally a food photographer. What made you want to shoot these portraits?
Gildas Paré: I wanted to work on something more personal and I was interested in issues surrounding femininity. I was surprised to find that the custom of breast ironing was so poorly documented. After some research, I found out that a journalist, Kirk Bayama, was filming a documentary on the matter. I contacted him and a few months later we travelled to Cameroon together.
Can you explain this practice?
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.
How does it work?
It often starts when the girl is about eight or nine years old. Their family will wrap tight elastic bandages around their chest. They tighten them at night, sometimes during the day, too. 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.
All of the women pose bare-chested. Was it easy to convince them to do so?
Not at all, it was actually really difficult. During our first meeting with RENATA – the women's rights NGO that helped us – one of the victims immediately told us that it would be impossible. "You can either photograph their face or their breasts, but not both. They will never agree to that," she said. I told them that if I didn't do it that way, it wouldn't be of any use. A clothed woman wouldn't have the same impact. We had lengthy discussions about it and they finally agreed with me. They understood what I was doing – that my point of view wasn't sexual but an insight.
You wanted them to be topless from the beginning, is that right?
Yes, definitely. Otherwise, there wouldn't have been such a direct confrontation with the audience. Breasts have a strong impact on people.
What sort of relationship do these women have with their bodies?
They suffer on a daily basis. They can't stand wearing a swimsuit, so they don't go to the beach. It's hard for them to undress in front of their boyfriends – if they even have one, that is. The physical pain might fade but the psychological trauma doesn't. Most don't want their chests to be touched ever again.
The title of your project is Plastic Dream. Why is that?
These women are desperate for plastic surgery. They want to earn enough money to be able to afford breast operations. They'd like to be able to wear nice dresses, to go out and show themselves. But for now, they'd prefer to hide. That's what's really terrible.
When I went there, I had so many preconceived notions: I thought I'd find all these women with huge scars on their bodies. But in the end, it was the psychological wounds that we talked the most about. I was a bit overwhelmed.
Was there one story in particular that moved you?
Every single story was powerful. Even if their wounds weren't visual, they were broken inside. One of the women suffered a lot: She was ironed with a spatula, then a rock, then raped and married off to a man without her consent. She had a kid when she was just 14.
In Cameroon, if you can't breastfeed your child, things can get difficult. Feeding bottles or milk for the baby are not readily available on the market. Since that girl wasn't able to breastfeed, they used driver ants to sting her with venom in an attempt to kickstart milk production. It's a horrible story.
What's next for this project?
Right now, I'm looking for places to exhibit these portraits. I'm currently negotiating with a gallery. I also really want to go back to Cameroon to shoot some more.
"When my breasts started to grow, people in my house began to talk about it. Neighbours, my mum's friends, our elders. So much talking! Even I started to feel ashamed because people were talking about it. Eventually, my mum decided to iron my breasts. 'If we don't iron them, it will attract men. And we know that men mean pregnancy,' she said. We needed to kill those breasts, she claimed. She used hot rock on my right boob, then the left, then the right. This went on for weeks. I suppose she meant well. Breasts are what makes a woman beautiful, though. Today, mine are flabby. They can't even stand." - Carole B., 28 years old.
Berry pits are also used to flatten the breast. Women heat them and then rub it against the chest.
"I was eight when my mother told me: 'Take your top off. Do you have breasts already? When a girl your age has breasts, men look at her.' I didn't understand what she was doing. Every day, sometimes three times a day, she would flatten my chest with a hot spatula. She would just say: 'It's for your own good.' It was a nightmare. I noticed that the more she massaged me, the more my breasts grew. When she realised it wasn't working, she used a rock. That was hell. It felt like my body was on fire. A guidance counsellor, who I told everything, tried to talk to my mum and get her to stop. I was happy because I thought it was over. But she did it again — with heated fruit pits this time. She massaged and massaged. I packed my stuff and moved to my aunt's immediately. Sometimes, I try to understand my mother's actions. It hurts so much when I look at myself in the mirror." – Doriane, 19 years old.
"My breasts finally began to grow when I was 18 years old. Before that, boys weren't attracted to my body. I felt really bad about it. My grandmother began destroying my breast when I was 12 years old. I would try to run away from her every morning but she'd catch me. Other kids were going to school and I was being massaged with a hot rock. She did it twice a day for a year. Having breasts is natural, it's human. When I didn't have them, I felt like a boy." - Agnès, 32 years old.
"Pestles remind me of my childhood pains. That same piece of rock people use to crush spices has been used to crush women's beauty and wilt teenagers' skin. My breasts began to grow when I was 10 and my family thought that massaging was the solution. When I was 16 and got pregnant, they also darkened. A black fluid would come out every time I tried to breastfeed. I have a hard time remembering it all. I decided to forget it and to fight violence against women." – Cathy, 27 years old.
"Every morning, before going to school, my mum makes me lift up my top so she can make sure I haven't taken my bandage off. It's been two years now and she still checks it on a daily basis. It's humiliating. I'd like her to stop. When I grow up, I want to be a lawyer or play piano. I hope that wearing this bandage will help me to continue my education." – Cindy, 14 years old.
Elastic bandage used to curb breast growth.
Driver ants used to stimulate breast milk production.
"She was my mum, so I had to obey when she called for me. Even if I ran, she'd catch me; when I went to bed, she'd grab me; when I was washing myself, she'd get me and start massaging. She'd find a way, no matter what. I could cry all I want, but she would still do it. It felt like she was stabbing something into my chest. She's dead now. I never really understood what she was thinking – if she thought she was helping me or punishing me. 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.
"At night, my mother would make me wear a really tight elastic band around my chest. During the day, she'd massage me with a spatula, a pestle, a stick or a rock. It really hurt. I asked her to stop and eventually she did. But after the ironing, 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.
Homemade elastic band.
"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 mum does this." – Manuella, nine years old.
"My mother told me that my breasts were going to attract men. So she brought me to a traditional healer. He grabbed a knife, cut my breasts, one after the other and sucked the insides out with a tube. He told me: 'If you don't do it, people will think you're a prostitute.' I fainted from the pain. It took days to heal. Breasts are a gift from God." – Lisette, 34 years old.