Women Doctors of Color Feel Pressure to Change Their Look

Ralph Ellis

July 02, 2021

The hashtag #BigHoopEnergy has sparked an online conversation about how women of color in the medical field are pressured to conform to traditional standards of professional appearance.

It started when a Latina doctor tweeted that she lost points on a practical exam in medical school because of her hoop earrings, with the evaluator writing "earrings, unprofessional." 

That led other women doctors to cite their own experiences, reported The Lilly, a Washington Post publication aimed at millennial women. Many women posted photos of themselves wearing hoops, which have long been associated with Latina and African American women, The Lilly said.

"There's a big movement to police women of color and how they present themselves in medical spaces," Briana Christophers, a MD-PhD student at the Tri-Institutional MD-PhD Program in New York, said. "I think in part it's as a way of trying to make people who don't usually fit the mold, fit the mold."

Christophers, who identifies as Latina, said she was urged to wear a black or navy suit when interviewing for doctorate programs. She wore a black suit with a lavender blouse and received comments about that — some positive, some not, she said.

"Sometimes you don't know how to interpret those sorts of comments," Christophers said. "Do you remember because you like the shirt, or because you don't think I should have done that?"

Doctors of color still stand out in American medicine. The Lilly cited The Association of American Medical Colleges as saying that in 2018, Hispanics made up 5.8% of active American physicians and Blacks made up 5%.

Studies show that medical professionals of color often don't receive the same respect as their White counterparts, with some people questioning whether they're actually doctors.

"At work, wearing my white coat that has my name pretty big on it with a badge that says doctor on it, I still get asked if I'm the environmental services staff," Alexandra Sims, a pediatrician in Cincinnati, told The Lilly. "I think it just demonstrates how deeply ingrained bias, racism and sexism are in society and that we have a lot of work to do to disrupt that."

Sim said the tweet about hoop earrings led her to wonder about daily decisions she makes about dress.

"Am I too much? Is this too much? Is this earring too big? Is this nail polish color too loud? And how will that be received at work?" she said, noting that she may opt not to wear hoops in certain situations, such as dealing with a grabby baby. 

Monica Verduzco-Gutierrez, a professor and chair of the department of rehabilitation medicine at University of Texas Health San Antonio, said doctors should be judged on the care they provide, not their appearance.

"Judging someone based on their earrings or their jumpsuit or whatever else that they're noticing about the student is not an appropriate way to judge the student's ability to take care of a patient," Verduzco-Gutierrez said. She noted that she was not speaking on behalf of the school.

Sources:

Shari Dunaway Twitter feed

The Lilly. "A doctor was deemed ‘unprofessional' for wearing hoops. Now other women of color are speaking out."

The Association of American Medical Colleges. "Diversity in Medicine: Facts and Figures 2019"

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