The implications of #medbikini and why women feel outraged

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I have never expected to write a submission to KevinMD, nor have I ever felt I would be compelled to do so. But the recent social media firestorm in response to the August 2020 issue of the Journal of Vascular Surgery, a manuscript entitled “Prevalence of Unprofessional Social Media Content Among Young Vascular Surgeons,” unearthed unexpected emotions that compelled me to put pen to paper.

The implications of the article initially unsettled me in a way I could not completely articulate. The retaliation it incited: pictures of women in bikinis, holding alcoholic beverages, some more provocative than others, did not seem to capture the appropriate amount of mutiny to the accusations being put forth. I quickly realized it wasn’t the accusation of being “unprofessional” that really troubled me. This story drew similarities to multiple articles I have recently read about teachers, professors, and other female professionals who have been shamed for having the audacity for being seen as sexual in a public realm.

Whether it is their style of dress, risqué fitness activities, (burlesque, or pole, for example) or an actual history of being a sex worker, there remains the underlying archaic implication that a woman cannot be seen as sexual and respectable at the same time. As others have said, more succinctly than I, “women shouldn’t have to disavow their sexual selves in order to be taken seriously and treated with respect.”

But further, what is disturbing is the voyeur-esque lens being used to pass judgment on these social media posts. Reading the study, one is forced to wonder what crosses the lines for the three anonymous male reviewers, all aged 28 to 37 years of age, to deem a photo “potentially unprofessional”? Their vague, subjective guidelines include “inappropriate attire” (i.e., “provocative posing in bikinis/swimwear”).

As a female physician with a social media account, it gives me pause. Do my innocuous pictures from vacation count as “posing”? The #MeToo movement has demanded that society reassess their perception of sexual harassment; feeling sexualized unintentionally, by men, when posting in a personal realm, feels like a violation of precisely that sort.

I realize many women do not share these views; I have recently read opinionated posts that those who are offended are overreacting to what feels like a trivial, and potentially even valid suggestion. However, I implore these individuals to consider the deeper subtext to what is making women so outraged. What feels most dangerous about this article is its previous acceptance in a major medical journal. This tacit recognition lends validity to its opinions, and further, lends validity to continued microaggressions against women in the medical field. It is a continued reminder that we don’t belong; that we will always have to try harder to get the respect our male peers are given automatically. Thus I entreat the outraged to continue to post the bikini photos if they desire, but further continue to demand the respect that has been earned from your years of training. Remind yourself that women deserve agency over their bodies and do not allow others to reduce your body to a taboo.

Gabrielle Nguyen is a physical medicine and rehabilitation physician.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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