Making global headlines in recent weeks has been a Guardian UK investigation which has revealed that the practice of breast ‘ironing’ is being perpetrated on young girls in the UK.
According to the National FGM Centre, breast ironing or breast flattening is a traditional practice in some African cultures in which a prepubescent girl is subjected to a process of having her developing breasts “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.” Different techniques for breast flattening include using large stones or metal implements which have been heated over coals, or use of fabric belts or elasticised breast binders to prevent the breasts from growing.
While there are no official records, Guardian sources estimate at least 1000 girls in the UK having been subjected to breast ironing. The procedure is typically performed by an older female relative, often a girl’s mother, and is often done out of a belief that preventing breast development will delay or prevent unwanted sexual attention, harassment, or even rape. Perpetrators may also justify the mutilation as an attempt to prevent a girl’s sexual relations from bringing ‘dishonour’ to the family, or even as a way of delaying a girl’s coming of age in order for her to stay in education or work for a longer period of time.
Unsurprisingly, the health implications of deliberately damaging a young girl’s breast tissue can be severe and life long. In addition to the pain and emotional trauma of the procedure itself, girls who undergo breast flattening are at risk of various complications including abscess, cysts, infection, breast asymmetry, complete disappearance of the breasts, higher risk of breast cancer, and future breastfeeding difficulties due to damage or insufficiently developed glandular tissue.
The practice of breast flattening anywhere is obviously a very serious situation and it is excellent that this practice is being brought to public attention, and that UK authorities are developing appropriate and culturally sensitive interventions. But reading the news coverage exposing and condemning the ‘barbarism’ of breast ironing *le gasp* in our own neighbourhoods, it hit me like a ton of bricks – there is another cohort of children having their breasts flattened and genitals mutilated, but the news coverage of that looks very, very different:
Courage. Revolution. Identity. Strength…. and… is it just me, or are the gender non conforming kids we see in the news overwhelmingly white?
Given what we know about diversity and representation in media, this really did seem worth a background check. So I had a look at data from the Tavistock Centre, the UK’s only NHS-run psychological service for children experiencing ‘gender dysphoria’. And there it is: a 2014 audit of children attending Tavistock for features of gender dysphoria, shows that over 90% were white:
While Tavistock’s services for children under 16 are primarily psychological, the clinic is under investigation for allegations of fast-tracking patients aged 17-25 to their adult clinic, where assessment protocols are far less rigorous and referral to medical services are common. And while the NHS isn’t necessarily handing out chest binders like lollies, the internet abounds in advice for parents in helping their child to choose and use a binder. But NHS material can hardly be accused of painting an accurate picture of the pain and risks of spending hours every day wearing a garment which 50% of users report suspicions that it has fractured their ribs. Below is a section from the NHS-funded brochure “A Guide for Young Trans People in the UK“, available from the advocacy organisation Mermaids UK.
Hate your developing female body? Try short hair! Wear pants! Buy your chest binder from our recommended retailer! Be confident and take up space (very unladylike). And maybe if you eat all your vegetables, mummy will fly you overseas to have your penis or breasts removed, just like Mermaids CEO Susie Green did for her own trans identified 16 year old child.
I’m sure there are many and complex reasons why such a massively disproportionate number of white children – specifically, white teenage girls – are represented among Tavistock patients. But the why I’m really interested in here is: why do we react with horror to stories about breast binding and genital mutilation among African communities, but when children from white families undergo similar or even more aggressive procedures, we applaud it as supportive, progressive and inclusive?
Here is where some will say – you can’t compare forcing a young girl to having her breasts ironed whether she likes it or not, to a trans identified child who is begging to have her breasts prevented or hidden. Surely we’re not comparing apples to apples.
Or are we? Both practices are occurring in cultures where the dominant gender norms demand rigid bodily adherence. In both contexts, the expectation that individuals should conform their behaviour to stereotyped sex roles is handed down from generation to generation. And the question of whether or not a child wants their breasts to be flattened should be a non-issue; the various mechanisms intended to safeguard children from abuse, all centre around the recognition that children are uniquely vulnerable and have limited capacity for consent.
A child being white and gender non conforming does not magically bestow upon them the ability to understand or accept the risks of life long body alterations or serious medical complications. The fact that the implement used is not a hot stone but a nice new elastic chest binder purchased from a shop, or that the procedure is performed not at the kitchen table but in a bright clean operating theatre, does not make it any more acceptable to subject a child to low oxygen levels, broken ribs, perforated lungs, infection, abscess, or irreversible tissue damage. But we know, somehow we just know, that when those Africans do it to their girls, it’s awful. It’s different for us. Our children know who they are and what they want. When they damage their girls breasts with hot things it’s brutal and repressive; our modern binders and mastectomies help our children to be the best they can be.
In case this seems like too long a bow to draw, consider Landon Nichols, who had a bilateral mastectomy aged 12. Nichols has 30,000+ followers on instagram, many of whom appear to be trans identified young people who see Landon as an inspiration. The photos below are from Nichols’ instagram page, where amidst a stream of bare-chested selfies and before-and-after shots, are tender family photos flooded with comments praising Nichols’ parents for supporting their prepubescent child to self-inject a regimen of hormones (the side effects of which include infertility), and undergo elective surgery to surgically remove healthy body parts.
Or Jazz Jennings, child star of ‘I Am Jazz’, whose mother threw a televised ‘farewell to penis’ party before his
bottom surgery penectomy and vaginoplasty, which left Jennings with separating wounds, requiring additional skin grafts and follow up surgery. Elective surgery after which Jennings is now living with a wound that requires a daily dilation routine in order to prevent it from healing to itself. Exactly the kind of life every parent dreams of for their 18 year old daughter.
Do we really think that in communities where traditional breast ironing is practiced, that girls never believe that by enduring the procedure they are doing something which affirms their values and identity? Do we really think that parents who subject their daughters to breast ironing or circumcision aren’t trying to do the right thing for their child, or even to prevent greater harm from coming to that child? Do we think nobody in their community looks at them with respect and praises their loving parenting?
Why are white parents ‘brave and supportive’ for paying doctors to publicly mutilate their daughters, but black parents are ‘barbaric’ for doing the same thing behind closed doors? Why are so many young white girls buying binders and seeking treatment for gender dysphoria – and being affirmed and encouraged by adults when they do?
Good grief, once we start asking questions, it seems like we fall down a dizzying rabbit hole where they never end. Which is probably why people asking these questions or pointing out the double standards are being silenced. And why parents who fight for their children to have a few more years of therapy or time before they start irreversible medical treatments are framed as bigots or bullied with threats that their child will commit suicide if they aren’t allowed to transition as soon as possible. Too many questions are bad for business; there’s an increasing amount of money to be made from pushing medication and binders and tiny silicone penises for gender non conforming preschoolers.* But hot stones are free, and must be stopped. Somebody’s got to think of the children.
*yes, these disgusting things exist, and no, I’m not bloody well linking to the site which sells them