I have spent most of today looking at her legs. She wears a short skirt every day, no exception. Her hair always hangs loose against her shoulders. She wears sandals, and she knows it’s against the dress code. Her legs stick out from under her white coat, and from the back, it looks like she could be wearing nothing under it. Her legs just hang there, browned and silky, like a commercial.
When she leans in toward a patient, she lets her skirt pull part way up her leg, and I can see the little crease in her thigh that tells me she’s in shape.
Her patient today asks her how she copes with seeing so many patients with brain tumors. She laughs and says, “I go swimming.” That must be how she got the crease.
Last week, a patient asked her, frowning, “Aren’t you a bit young to be a doctor?”
“I’ve been practicing for 15 years,” she says smoothly, “but thanks. It’s good to look young, right? You are complimenting me, you know.” She smiles flatly, and he is the one left shifting in his seat.
I sit in the corner chair of her office. I have a long white coat now, but little else has changed since medical school. My fellow interns are frenzied and gasping for air on the medical wards. Not me; I’m sitting and saying nothing, trying to muck together an education by listening—although we all agree that no one can really learn this way.
The head neurologist had told me that it would help my career in psychiatry if I spent a week here in the neuro-oncology clinic. I’d sighed inwardly, knowing this inevitably would mean more time with her legs, and with the personality that enables those legs to feel the fresh air.
My own legs are wrapped up in long black slacks and long black socks, ending in black shoes that are a little like clumps of coal. You would never know what color my toenail polish is, or that I have legs so milky that people used to ask me if I was wearing white pantyhose. Even at the beach.
There is an old part of me that is relieved by the suggested dress code. The part of me that dreads swimsuits and the beach—a place where guys used to smile at my browned friends and then, glancing down the line of us, would tell me they hoped I was wearing sunscreen. My legs are hidden in these pants, and hers are some of the only bare legs I have seen in the hospital butted up to a white coat, possibly ever.
She looks at her patient and frowns. “Why didn’t you taper off the steroids?” she snaps. “That’s what we discussed last time, is it not? Did you have some reason for that? Well?” He shrugs and says he didn’t really know why he didn’t, and was she sure that was the plan?
Oh, she is sure. She raises an eyebrow to confirm. He looks down at his feet. I watch his eyes to see if they ever graze over her legs. And they don’t.
I have spent all of medical school, and now these first few weeks of residency, hiding my skin. Wearing something just short of a turtleneck. Some part of me has even given thought to…a tie. After all, my male friends wear ties and never have any of them been mistaken for a nurse. Fear of being the target of that mistake is part of what keeps us women doctors stern and fully garbed. It is what I was told counts as “professional.” I do feel just a little bit professional as I watch her lean in and laugh. She turns to me and says, “He’s a joker, isn’t he?”
I can’t remember the last time I let myself really laugh when I talked to a patient. Certainly there were times I wanted to laugh, when funny things were said. But I was told not to do that a long time ago. That it made me look silly and school-girlish.
But she laughs with a full mouth, and if I didn’t know better, I’d say she was flirting. If I came to work dressed like that and laughing like that, I’d have 20 phone numbers by the end of the day, and maybe a print on my ass from all the playful slappings.
But her patients do not take her the wrong way even for a second. They shower her with praise. “You are a wonderful doctor,” they tell her. “I trust you. Dr. So-and-so sent me here because he said that you’d tell it to me straight.”
Old ladies tell me I am wonderful every once in awhile. Or they will say I’m going to be wonderful. That I seem angelic—that sort of thing. Never have they meant anything other than I am awfully nice. Her patients do not think she is just plain nice. They think she is brilliant.
She pulls up his MRI slides. “See?” she says. “There has been no tumor progression. These slides are virtually identical. Your tumor was fully resected, and the spot here has been stable for some time. I want you to taper off the steroids. There is no need for them now. They were given to you initially because you had an enormous mass effect from your tumor. That means your tumor was pushing on everything. There was swelling too. The steroids controlled that. There is no need for the steroids now. There is nothing for you to worry about.”
My eyes have drifted to her legs again. They seem even more of a status symbol than her diplomas on the wall; than any of her awards hanging beside them; than that entire file cabinet full of papers authored by her. Those legs tell you—she’s made it. She has earned what women can spend a lifetime slaving toward and never achieve: She has earned respect.
I know there is a lesson here. She is an accomplished woman. She has done the work. She has studied in her field extensively. She has done research. She has that no-nonsense thing about her too—that high-strung, snappy thing.
What I don’t want the lesson to be is that I have to go all out—that I have to study through to my skin in a way that my male counterparts will never do, just so that I can dress like a woman, and be viewed as a woman, without my male patients deciding that this is their lucky day, and they had better let me know just how beautiful I am.
I resent having to do all that work. So the alternative is to look as little like a woman as possible. To pull my hair back tight, hard to my head. Maybe even slick it in a k.d. lang style. Wear a high-cut shirt that doesn’t show an inch of skin that a man doesn’t have. If I have done my job, it will be completely unclear to the casual observer whether I even own a pair of breasts. To add, I will follow in the generation of Laura Ingalls Wilder and consider it poor taste to even show my ankles.
There. Now that I have made it abundantly clear to my patients that I am not available, that I am not showing anything off in an attempt to attract a mate, that I am not even obviously a woman, for that matter, I can go ahead and be completely average in my studies and knowledge.
On my current daily route on the wards, my legs will never see the inside of a hospital. They will see nothing but black all day and every day. Not a single person in the hospital will ever know that I have a birthmark on the back of my calf or that my veins are just starting to peek through my pale skin in that old lady sort of way. That is my secret, and in some ways, my shame: my failure to go all out and get that final trophy, a skirt. An actual woman skirt.
Dr. Emily Watters is a second-year resident in psychiatry at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University.