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 my testicular exam, my standardized patient developed an erection.
Neither of us addressed this in the room.
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 difficulty 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 these "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 recent 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 meeting. I think about it with every male GU exam I perform.
Society punished me for the way my body made a mans body respond. The man, who's job it was to remain professional, was not reprimanded for his sexuality.
Society reminds me, and all women, that it is OUR fault and that WE need to HIDE our bodies as an apology.
I continue to believe my mentors advice was incredibly sound, and has greatly helped me navigate the past 8 years in medicine, but the culture surrounding that advice continues to an the issue for all women.
We've all heard similar stories set in schools all around the US. Just last month, a young woman in Florida was forced to cover her shirt-covered nipples with bandaids as to not 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.
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 similar clothes to what they would wear to a day at the beach, or a night at the club.
I would like to call attention to the fact that women, especially women in medicine, have to spend much of their careers apologizing for and covering their bodies.