While demographic data may suggest otherwise, I still consider myself a minority, albeit a less common one. I am a young woman in medicine, and I am a natural blonde.
I barely qualify for a prescription for eyeglasses, but I have found they give credence to my words and patients seem to take me more seriously. Perhaps three years of residency training and four years of medical school lends at least a semblance of authority to my diminutive frame. I have learned to wear my blonde mane in a tight bun or low ponytail for interviews, to wear a pant suit rather than a skirt suit, to keep heels to a respectable 1.5” or less. I avoid using the word “like” too often.
Over the years, I have learned to speak up, to maintain eye contact and to assert myself if needed when rounds become disproportionately focused on the thoughts and opinions of male physicians and residents. I have gently reminded patients, male and female, young and old, that I am the physician, rather than the nurse, physical or occupational therapist, student or housekeeper. I have corrected patients who call me miss rather than doctor. I have combated years of study, sleep deprivation and the passage of time with a nightly ritual of retinoids, only to be considered years under my level of experience. (Not that I mind a youthful complexion aided by avoiding sun exposure while in libraries and hospital wards.)
During my internship, I went on a date with a good man and a couple of years later, he proposed. As I made plans for my career after residency, I met with a trusted adviser who after discussion of the several options I was considering, fellowship, research, physician positions, assured me not to worry too much. I was, after all, marrying a plastic surgeon.
What a relief, why hadn’t I thought of this? Why should a young, reasonably attractive blonde doctor worry about a career or patient care, financial independence or education? I always wanted to marry rich, medicine was just my backup plan. Or was it? Certainly, there are easier ways to attain financial security than a medical education. Maybe I should have stayed with the trust-fund boyfriend I had after college.
I took time to think about the offhand statement made by someone whose opinion and counsel I had sought and valued. If after eight years of graduate and post-graduate training, a medical degree, residency at an Ivy-league institution and an intact sense of self-worth, I could still manage to be approached with such assurances, what then of women in other positions? Sexism is alive and well in medicine and despite efforts to the contrary, gender bias exists in subtle and not so subtle ways.
I left the office, promptly removed the tortoise shell glasses, changed into my skinny jeans, a favorite sweater, suede heeled boots, put down my hair and applied a little mascara and blush. That week, I applied successfully to fellowship. And still, the question I am most asked lately is how stressful it must be to be planning a wedding. Very stressful indeed.
Elizabeth Horn is a resident physician.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com