Masking the Feminine Physique
In medical school, we learn to perform all different kinds of exam on standardized patients. We learn how to listen to breath sounds, check for pulses, and to palpate abdomens. We also learn how to perform GU exams, on both men and women. We learned what an ovary felt like on a bimanual exam, and how to check a testicle for masses. Standardized patients are trained to be professional during these exams and to help the young doctors learn how to perform different aspects of the exam.
My first male GU exam was performed on a standardized patient.
As I initiated by testicular exam, my standardized patient developed an erection.
Immediately following the exam, one of my female mentors debriefed my experience. I was upset, and obviously afraid I had done something wrong. As our debrief concluded, my mentor suggested I wear less flattering clothing to decrease the chance of this happening again. This was not to reprimand me, but to aid my future in medicine.
She had navigated this male dominated world.
She had her own similar experience.
She had learned to hide her body and was preparing me for a future in medicine
At that time, my response was to buy new clothing that better hid my body. During my first year of medical school, I was 115 lbs with 34 DD breasts. Shirts that "limit" my breasts are difficult to find. During my 3rd and 4th year of medical school, I experimented with clothing options. I found a solution- my body was least sexualized in scrubs. Scrubs covered my breasts and fit loosely on my glutes and thighs.
While I have used "unflattering" scrubs to cover up my “far too feminine for medicine” body, I continue to receive comments. I've been told by many men at work that I'm one of few women who you can "still tell have boobs" under their scrubs. I have been told how my "ass looks great" looks while on shift. A this study reports that 35% of women cautioned for their appearance at work were deemed ‘distracting’ to their male counterparts.
This problem is not limited to medicine.
Nearly 10 years later, I still think of this moment. I think about it when getting dressed for interviews, conferences, and meetings. I think about it with every male GU exam I perform.
Society punished me for the way my body made a man's body respond. The man, whose job it was to remain professional, was not reprimanded for his sexuality.
Society reminds me, and all women, that men's response to our bodies is our fault and that we need to hide as an apology.
I continue to believe my mentors advice was incredibly sound, and has greatly helped me navigate the past 10 years in medicine, but the culture surrounding that advice continues to be an issue for all women. We've all heard similar stories set in schools all around the US. In Florida, a young woman was forced to cover her shirt-covered nipples with bandaids as not to be a distraction. In 2015, this young woman got sent home because her collar bone was exposed.
This culture limits women in all areas, including the clinical setting.
Over the past few days, social media has been reacting to a journal article “Prevalence of unprofessional social media content among young vascular surgeons.” The three male authors screened Vascular Surgery applicants on social media platforms looking for “unprofessional” behaviors. Their definition of “Potentially unprofessional” included holding/consuming alcohol, and inappropriate attire. Inappropriate attire included wearing bikinis and swimwear. This interpretation of wearing a bikini as unprofessional is more reflective of the articles authors than the bikini wearers. This reminds me of a medical mission trip to Nicaragua during medical school when the women were told by a man that they MUST wear shirts over their bathing suits to cover their bodies while poolside, while the men were allowed to be shirtless. Ten years later, the article is just another example of men trying to control women's bodies within medicine.
I graduated Medical School just over 6 years ago, and am currently packing for a vacation with Dr. Melissa Parsons. My suitcase is filled with bikinis and shorts, and we will be consuming alcohol over the next week.
I make no apologies for wearing a bikini and drinking a white claw. This does not impact my ability to be a Emergency Medicine doctor or a physician leader.
I do want to express that I agree with the importance of dressing appropriately in a clinical setting. This includes dressing "professionally". I am not suggesting that anyone should wear to work similar clothes to what they would wear to a day at the beach, or a night at the club. I also want to be clear that I believe you can wear a bikini on the boat, or a tight dress when out for the night.