The orthopedic objectification of women

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A recent uproar in Twitterverse regarding the publication of certain images has sparked further debate after the response from publishers. The images represent scantily clad women with socially “ideal” body-types, seductively eyeing the camera and would, unfortunately, be commonplace in glossy magazines meant to sell products using these women’s sexual appeal. Body positive activists in society, for some time now, have been campaigning industry to stop this damaging and exploitative behavior. Even some of the most challenging industries, such as fashion, have made an effort to be more body and gender-inclusive.

But what if I told you that these images are published in Advanced Examination Techniques in Orthopedics for the apparent purpose of medical learning?

The Cambridge University Press has responded to the outpouring of disbelief and disappointment. Their response said “to demonstrate examination techniques effectively, the reader needs to be able to see skin, muscles and bony features where appropriate.” They also made a point of reassuring their critics that their book has been well received by the academic community.

I, as a woman practicing orthopedic surgery, along with my colleagues, have managed to learn examination techniques without using images that are damaging to women. It seems to be lost on Cambridge University Press, and perhaps others, why this is damaging, and so I felt compelled to explain it.

The portrayal of women as objects at all is harmful to society. To occur in a medical textbook indicates that the objectification of women is sanctioned by the academic world, the publisher, and us as doctors. The fact that these women are photographed “for science” in a seductive manner and, in some examples, wearing minimal, completely sheer clothing would suggest that this is acceptable in a real clinical examination scenario. These images include a woman who is wearing only a sheer bra and having her hand examined. I have examined many patients and have certainly never requested that they expose themselves in this. Most in medicine would consider such behavior to be unprofessional, but the message here is academic sanctioned sexual harassment.

These images fail to represent gender or body diversity of both orthopedic surgeons and patients. Instead, the images reinforce maleness in a position of power over women, women as the seductress or sexual objects, and women’s’ bodies as a commodity. Frankly, it reinforces a major culture issue in orthopedic surgery.

As a woman in orthopedics, I am uncomfortable with the images for several reasons. They make me feel out of place, as though the profession is not meant for me, and like I’ve stumbled on a secret. They contradict the message that I wish to send to society both professionally and personally. Many of my female colleagues have expressed similar sentiments. Some colleagues of mine who are men have expressed the same discomfort, however many have laughed it off as an example of “boys will be boys.”

Ninety-four percent of orthopedic surgeons in the U.S. identify as men. Do the rest of us not also have the right to feel comfortable, especially when it comes to education? Do we not have the social responsibility to condemn behaviors that are damaging to our colleagues, represent unprofessional conduct, and put our patients at risk?

Stephanie Atkinson is an orthopedic surgeon and can be reached on Twitter @abonesurgeon.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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