Professional dress in the field of medicine is a difficult topic, especially for women. Dr. Caputo visits the blog today to talk about her version of professionalism and expression in her medical career.
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I have always loved shoes, especially heels. From the time I was in middle school, I've had a closet full of them. Perhaps this stems from being 4'11, but heels have long been part of my self-expression. However, as a medical student entering my third year clerkships, the descriptions I was given of "professional dress" did not leave room for the types of clothes and shoes I routinely wore.
Not wanting to stand out or risk being deemed unprofessional, I bought and wore black and gray dress pants and blouses to my rotations. I saw many of my female classmates and the female residents and attendings dressing similarly, so I thought I had it right. The message I had received was that dressing professionally equaled dressing in a masculine way. In my black clogs, I certainly felt like I had left my femininity stashed away in my closet.
My entire view of what it meant to be a professional woman in medicine changed when I did my internal medicine rotation. My senior resident was at least 5'8, and she wore 3-inch heels every day, which left her towering over me (and most of the team). She wore brightly colored dresses and skirts; I'm convinced she did not own a piece of black or gray clothing. She paired her outfits with equally bold lipstick and wore her thick wavy hair long. She was also one of the top residents in her class. I was in awe of her. I knew she was the kind of resident I wanted to be. Smart, confident, and unapologetically feminine. Watching her take charge of a rapid response in lime green wedges, I realized I didn't have to choose between being good at medicine and caring about how I looked.
When I moved for residency, I threw away those clogs and replaced the boxy neutral pants and tops with dresses in colors and prints that, while professional, left no doubt about my feminine identity.
My experience of changing my outward appearance to conform to medicine's standards of professionalism is one illustration of the growing conversation of how professionalism has traditionally been equated with white and male. We can look back to last year's #MedBikini outrage when a study in the Journal of Vascular Surgery defined wearing a bikini as potentially unprofessional social media behavior for residency applicants. There was an overwhelming response from women (and men) in medicine on Twitter posting photos of themselves in swimwear and asking: who gets to decide what is professional?
As another July arrives and new medical students and residents join our ranks, I recommit to being an example that professional does not equal white masculinity. A love for high heels, bright colors, or lipstick has no bearing on one's ability to be a great physician. Expressing one's authentic self through physical appearance is not unprofessional, but stripping people of their gender expression is.