I love joggers. If I had to pick a piece of clothing to wear every day for the rest of my life, it would be joggers. I wear them constantly — outside the hospital, that is.
These days, this choice makes me an anomaly. Like the ubiquitous clogs in the OR, jogger-style scrubs have taken over hospital floors, replacing classic ill-fitting, hospital-issued scrub sets. This is especially true among young women. Noticing this shift in attire has led me to reflect on the utility of scrubs and on the role uniforms play in shaping our professional identities. For me, the rising popularity of trendy, high-end scrub substitutes reveals insidious cultural problems in medicine.
As medical students, in addition to learning how to take a robust patient history or appropriately time bathroom breaks in the OR, we are also absorbing hospital culture. More than anything, medical students seek to fit in, to finally become a part of the team we have spent years trying to join. Therefore, we attend closely to hospital norms, or oft-referenced “hidden curriculum,” as we benefit when we mirror the behaviors of those around us.
Being comfortable at work matters, especially in health care, where long hours and demanding work conditions are common. Jogger-style scrubs fill a need. Historically, health care professionals have had few options for scrub wear. Because hospital-issued scrubs were designed as “unisex,” they tended to fit male bodies well and female bodies poorly. New scrub companies have tailored scrubs to accommodate different body shapes; additionally, they improved designs by adding functional pockets and using wrinkle-resistant and stain-repellent fabrics.
Perhaps, by fitting all body types, they promote workplace inclusivity, allowing people to present themselves in a way that both flatters and offers full coverage. Perhaps having a choice in work wear provides opportunities to express identities more fully. However, perhaps tight-fitting jogger scrubs have become another way gender is performed in the workplace. Perhaps jogger scrubs promote inequity.
With their stylish, form-fitting appearance, jogger scrubs reinforce certain culturally-accepted norms of femininity. When dressing at 5 a.m., I am usually thinking about little other than getting to rounds alive and caffeinated. At times, though, the choice feels weightier than the fabric. Am I choosing to feel comfortable and stylish? Am I choosing what makes me feel seen as an equal? Why is this even a choice I need to make?
Although just a few months into clinical rotations, I have been mistaken for a nurse, despite wearing hospital-issued scrubs and a prominently-displayed medical student badge. One would be hard-pressed to find a woman physician who hasn’t experienced similar confusion. I’ve also been told by my trusted mentors to wear my glasses at the hospital. “You want to look smart, don’t you? “Clearly, scrubs alone are not the sole factor influencing gender dynamics in health care. Yet, at the risk of being trite, I don’t think my male colleagues worry about how their clothing, eyewear, or physical appearance will influence how they are perceived in the hospital. Professional attire is not the only lever in the power-hierarchy control room, but it is one that feels influential, perhaps because we interface with it every day and are able to exercise some degree of personal agency over it.
Hospital-issued scrubs serve as uniforms that flatten power dynamics. Scrub vending machines dispense the same scrubs to a neurosurgery attending and a first-year medical student. By contrast, jogger scrubs are expensive, with a price tag often out of reach for most student doctors, many of whom are (like me) in debt from financing their education. In part because of this cost, they have increasingly become a hospital status symbol, promoting a sleek, aspirational health care-hustle culture actively marketed through social media. In contrast, hospital-issued scrubs have always been the great equalizer: Whether one loved or hated their boxy, amorphous appearance, everyone wore the same thing. We pay the price when we abandon this shared uniform.
As a uniform, scrubs embody the medical profession. They clarify and distinguish roles in an often otherwise overwhelming environment. When we don our scrubs, we step into our professional identities. They remind us of the oath we took to respect and uphold the dignity of every person entrusted to our care. Maybe traditional unisex scrubs are anachronistic, symbolizing a time when only white men were welcomed as physicians. Maybe hospitals should offer tailored scrubs that fit more body types and are made of higher-quality fabric that hides sweat stains. But what values are we signaling to our patients, our colleagues, and our communities if we are stepping into joggers? Is this the professionalism we aim to convey? While there’s nothing problematic about wanting to look good and be comfortable while working hard, there’s nothing casual, comfortable, or athleisure about medicine. Maybe our profession benefits from sharing a uniform that reminds us of this truth.
Kenzie Whitcomb and Sarah Becker are medical students.