They are the outward sign of our sexuality, drooled over by spotty schoolboys. They give life. Breastfeeding provides a new born baby with vital nutrients and helps cement the mother-baby bond.
And they can kill. Breast cancer is the most common cancer to affect Scottish women, and nearly 1,000 of us die every year from the disease.
We spend thousands of pounds over our lifetime in a desperate effort to find the perfect combination of elastic, hooks and wires to support our breasts, usually without success. Some women spend even more in a desperate attempt to create the perfect pair. Breast augmentation, where implants are inserted to change the shape and size, is one of the most common plastic surgery procedures among women.
And as we age, so do our breasts. They sag, or shrink, sometimes both. But unless we are unlucky enough to endure a mastectomy, our breasts, in all their pendulous glory, remain the most visible sign of our femaleness from puberty to death. Yet, for some young girls, the prospect of their breasts developing scares them so much that they resort to binding them tightly with cloth, or even duct tape, to stop their growth.
Some do it because they are embarrassed by their bodily changes, the metamorphosis from childhood into the scary world of sex. But increasingly it is done by girls who are convinced they are male. In recent years, there has been an extraordinary jump in the number of young people referred to the UK’s gender identity development service (Gids), up from 77 in 2009 to 2,590 in 2018-19, and the overwhelming majority (70 per cent) are girls.
The reasons why some girls decide they were born in the wrong body are complex. Some will be scared of their awakening sexuality, especially if they are attracted to other girls.
Some will have rapid onset gender dysphoria, where they hate what is happening to their bodies, and others will be influenced by social media and their peers. Social contagion, the phenomenon where behaviour and emotions spread rapidly through a group, is not unusual among adolescent girls. But whatever the root cause of their fear – because that is what it is, life-changing, all-encompassing fear – breast binding is surely not the answer.
Yet the Scottish government’s new guide for schools on supporting transgender pupils, published earlier this week, states that “binders... can have a positive impact on a young person’s mental health so staff should allow a young person to decide for themselves about whether or not to wear a binder…”
Let’s set aside for the moment the unscientific nature of the guide – which asserts that sex is assigned at birth rather than observed, and consistently confuses sex and gender – and focus on that one sentence. Our government is advising teachers that breast binding can have a positive impact on vulnerable young girls. Yet the physical risks from binding are unequivocal, ranging from back pain and shortness of breath to respiratory infections and spinal changes, to say nothing of the psychological impact of harming one’s body in such a fundamental way.
Global aid agencies, rightly, campaign for an end to breast ironing or flattening, the cultural practice where girls, mostly in Western Africa, have their breasts ironed or pummelled with stones to stop them from developing. Richer families may use an elastic belt or bandages – a binder – to achieve the same effect. The United Nations estimates that 3.8 million girls worldwide are affected.
The cultural reasoning for this mutilation of young girls – which is often carried out by family members – is to protect them from sexual attention, to pretend that they are still little girls. It is different to the cultural impetus in Scotland, where breast binding is seen by those in power as giving young girls agency over their bodies, but the impact is surely the same.
Writing for UN Women, Cameroonian journalist and women’s rights activist, Chi Yvonne Leina, describes a girl’s experience of breast ironing.
“Pain and perpetual fear become her daily companions. She is forced to believe that it is a shameful thing for her breasts to develop. Imagine her at a later stage in life not being able to breastfeed her baby because the milk ducts have been destroyed by this practice or unable to enjoy sex because her sensual nerves were killed by her mother in the name of protection.”
Girls in Scotland are today experiencing that same “pain and perpetual fear” in the name of transgender ideology. And a teacher in a Scottish school could be faced with supporting two girls. One whose family culture encourages breast ironing – viewed by UN as one of the five under-reported crimes related to violence against women – the other whose popular culture promotes breast binding. What advice would the Education Secretary, Shirley Anne Sommerville, give that teacher?
In the coming weeks and months, the issue of trans rights and self-identification will move off Twitter and on to the front pages. When the First Minister announces her Programme for Government, it is likely to include a commitment to reform of the Gender Recognition Act. The public debate will be bitter and protracted. Accusations of bigotry and worse will fly between the two camps. Women who campaigned for gay rights will find themselves at odds with friends who believe that a person can change their biological sex, simply by force of will.
And in the privacy of her bedroom, a young Scottish girl will wrap a bandage tightly around her budding breasts, crying as she desperately tries to stop her body from going through its natural cycle. The victim of an ideology she doesn’t fully understand. Mutilated in the name of progress. Fearful of her burgeoning sexuality. Alone.