Playing doctor in inappropriate clothes

An essay about the perils of healing while female.

Published November 21, 2006 7:00PM (EST)

The New York Times has an essay today by Miami doctor Erin Marcus complaining about the lax dress codes for today's young medical students and residents. Like most griping about what the kids are wearing today, this doesn't really strike me as an area of grave concern, but I understand that this is an issue that really bugs some people, especially those who came of age in different professional environments, when the standards of comportment were much stricter. To many people, dressing nicely at work really matters. So why did this essay make me so furious?

First of all, while it was ostensibly about sloppy dress by male and female doctors, when a story is titled "When Young Doctors Strut Too Much of Their Stuff," you can pretty much guess that it's going to be about a bunch of showy females. Sure enough, Marcus' lone examples of male shabbiness were an unshaven face and some dude in jeans and a T-shirt. Female doctors' sartorial sins, it seems, are multitudinous: low-cut blouses, high-cut skirts, midriff-baring shirts, high heels, open toes, manicured toes, "long flowing hair."

When Marcus was a new faculty physician, she writes, she worked "with a resident doctor who was smart and energetic and took excellent care of her patients." The one problem? "As she delivered her thoughtful patient presentations to me and the other attending doctors, it was hard not to notice her low-cut dress."

Keep in mind, this essayist is a doctor in Miami, where, as you may have heard, bustles and corsets went out several years ago. But apparently, this kind of wanton medical dress is happening everywhere -- more and more! All the time! Why? I don't know, but here's a guess: There are more young women doctors every day, and they tend to get their toes painted more frequently and grow their hair longer than their male peers do.

Marcus writes of one colleague who commented "that a particularly statuesque student 'must have thought all her male patients were having strokes' when she walked in their exam room wearing a low-cut top and a miniskirt." So was the problem that the student was statuesque? Would it have been solved if she were dumpy? Had she been unattractive -- or unattractively decked out -- would it have been better because then the male patients wouldn't have noticed that she was female? Should we be worried about the cardiac exertions of female patients who are attended to by particularly chiseled male doctors in sharp suits? Is what we're really fighting for here more ugly doctors? Or just less aggressively female ones?

But of course, Marcus' concern is the medicine. "Patients and colleagues may dismiss a young doctor's skills and knowledge or feel their concerns aren't being taken seriously when the doctor is dressed in a manner more suitable for the gym or a night on the town." Especially if she's in a dress and they can tell that she has breasts, confirming earlier suspicions that she may be female.

Sorry, the medicine: "Open-toed shoes don't protect against the spills that can commonly occur in patient care, and long, flowing hair can potentially carry harmful bacteria." See, the problem is, girls are crawling with germs, from head to toe.

But by far the most irritating part of the piece is the photo series that kicks it off: six shots of disembodied lady-doctor parts: clavicles, thighs, breasts, lips, gams, a bellybutton peeking out. Just a little bit of naughty, girl-in-lab-coat fun, no doubt. Remember, we may not want these hussies prescribing our medicine, but there's surely nothing wrong with using them to tease a dress-code essay in the Times!

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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