On one of the first days of medical school, Adaira Landry, MD, applied her favorite dark shade of lipstick and headed to her orientation. She was eager to learn about program expectations and connect with fellow aspiring physicians. But when Dr. Landry got there, one of her brand-new peers turned to her and asked, “Why do you wear your lipstick like an angry Black woman?”
“Imagine hearing that,” Dr. Landry, now an emergency medical physician in Boston, says. “It was so hurtful.”
So, what is a “standard-issue doctor” expected to look like? Physicians manage their appearances in myriad ways: through clothes, accessories, hair style, makeup; through a social media presence or lack thereof; in the rhythms and nuances of their interactions with patients and colleagues. These things add up to a professional “persona” – the Latin word for “mask,” or the face on display for the world to see.
While the health care field itself is diversifying, its guidelines for professionalism appear slower to change, often excluding or frowning upon expressions of individual personality or identity.
“Medicine is run primarily by men. It’s an objective truth,” Dr. Landry says. “Currently and historically, the standard of professionalism, especially in the physical sense, was set by them. As we increase diversity and welcome people bringing their authentic self to work, the prior definitions of professionalism are obviously in need of change.”
Split social media personalities
In August 2020, the Journal of Vascular Surgery published a study on the “prevalence of unprofessional social media content among young vascular surgeons.” The content that was deemed “unprofessional” included opinions on political issues like abortion and gun control. Photos of physicians holding alcoholic drinks or wearing “inappropriate/offensive attire,” including underwear, “provocative Halloween costumes,” and “bikinis/swimwear” were also censured. Six men and one woman worked on the study, and three of the male researchers took on the task of seeking out the “unprofessional” photos on social media. The resulting paper was reviewed by an all-male editorial board.
The study sparked immediate backlash and prompted hundreds of health care professionals to post photos of themselves in bathing suits with the hashtag “#medbikini.” The journal then retracted the study and issued an apology on Twitter, recognizing “errors in the design of the study with regards to conscious and unconscious bias.”
The researchers’ original definition of professionalism suggests that physicians should manage their personae even outside of work hours. “I think medicine in general is a very conservative and hierarchical field of study and of work, to say the least,” says Sarah Fraser, MD, a family medicine physician in Nova Scotia, Canada. “There’s this view that we have to have completely separate personal and professional lives, like church and state.”
The #medbikini controversy inspired Dr. Fraser to write an op-ed for the British Medical Journal blog about the flaws of requiring physicians to keep their personal and professional selves separate. The piece referenced Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 Gothic novella “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” in which the respected scientist Dr. Jekyll creates an alter ego so he can express his evil urges without experiencing guilt, punishment, or loss of livelihood. Dr. Fraser likened this story to the pressure physicians feel to shrink or split themselves to squeeze into a narrow definition of professionalism.
But Dr. Landry points out that some elements of expression seen as unprofessional cannot be entirely separated from a physician’s fundamental identity. “For Black women, our daily behaviors and forms of expression that are deemed ‘unprofessional’ are much more subtle than being able to wear a bikini on social media,” she says. “The way we wear our hair, the tone of our voice, the color of our lipstick, the way we wear scrub caps are parts of us that are called into question.”