Exotic

In Michael Kirk’s Frontline documentary “The Choice 2016” the presidential candidates at the time are contrasted with each other in their ascent to running for Presidential office.

https://www.pbs.org/video/frontline-choice-2016/

It describes how Hillary Clinton had to change her appearance, voice, mannerisms, use of words and her last name 50 years ago when Bill Clinton decided to run for Governor of Arkansas. She changed her hairstyle and got rid of her glasses. This particular detail of historical information gave me flash backs to my experiences in residency training. The documentary helped shine a light on interactions that during residency I did not fully understand. I did not completely understand it because I assumed incorrectly that the women’s rights movement of the 1960’s had achieved most of what it needed to. I assumed that women were in general treated as equal citizens in their civil rights to men in the United States. During my undergraduate years in university I had learned about sexism and domestic violence in the context of financial poverty. I was not expecting to see it among well educated people who had access to opportunity. I assumed wrong.

“Your co-residents are nerds, they see you as exotic so they do not understand you.” This was the head of the Psychiatry department’s response to me after I had shown him abusive emails I had to endure from the chief residents. This Psychiatrist was the head of an internal organization whose supposed purpose was to protect the well-being of residents. Rather than hold the chiefs’ accountable for their inappropriate and unprofessional communication, I was told that I needed “to learn upward management.” I was told that I needed to change my appearance. He told me to buy new glasses that “were less severe” and “wear your hair down.” I had been sent to see this Psychiatrist as a form of punishment as the chairman was trying to diagnose me with a psychiatric condition rather than own up to the toxic work environment he was creating. The chairman himself told me that the chiefs were “married and miserable” and he did not expect them to “make good mentors”.

I still have the two glasses I wore in residency, though I wear different ones today. My original lenses I liked were quite square and had a complete navy metallic rim around them. The pair I bought on the Psychiatrist’s request had only a partial silver frame, slightly rounded edges, the rest was frameless so that the glasses appeared less dominant. Upon watching “The Choice 2016” I was in shock but reaffirmed with Hillary Clinton’s story. The exact same mindset towards women’s appearances was still present in the 2010’s in a so called “hippie enclave” as it was in the 1970’s in the Deep South. The expectation was the same: no glasses and wearing your hair down. I was even asked by the Psychiatrist to “bring coffee” to the chiefs.

Apparently I was not communicating as a woman should have been and I was sent for neuropsychiatric testing. The Psychiatrist told me “I think you have ADHD”. One of the former chiefs advised me to take the test so that I would get an ADHD diagnosis as this would have been an excuse for being socially misunderstood. The Psychiatrist had already labeled me as a “social klutz” and that I needed to learn how to be “a good little doctor”. When the testing came back normal the psychiatrist said “well that makes things more difficult for me, because it means it is a personality mismatch.” So I was sent to Human Resources for interpersonal coaching to learn some manners and adjust my outward persona.

Women Physicians are expected to behave like “My Fair Lady”.

The HR coach told me, “you’re in a patriarchy, you must accept mia culpa.” He asked me “have you ever watched My Fair Lady? They want you to be more like them.” At the time, I could not understand why men would want me to change to be more like them and think like them. I was not like them. My Fair Lady is about a working-class Cockney girl who goes through the process of trying to obtain respect. She is unable to be respected by these powerful men with the lens she is being viewed through by these men.  In the end, she just goes to fetch a man’s slippers feeding his misogynistic needs. Unfortunately, the path most women physicians in the medical profession have to walk through in order to protect their professional status involves feeding and/or diffusing this same misogyny.

It took me some time to figure out why the Psychiatrist specifically used the term “exotic” to describe how my male co-residents’ were seeing me. Later I would find out the term exotic usually gets associated in the U.S. with strippers, sexual fetishes and mixed ethnic beauty of women. Part of my vulnerability came from my naivete towards the metaphorical use of words. The chairman had referred to me as a “chimera” which is an organism composed of two entirely different sets of DNA when referring to my ancestry. I knew what a chimera was given my background in molecular biology, but I did not at the time understand the connection with that word and my ethnicity. Now I know he was alluding to my ethnic heritage as being so unusual that it was like two different species that could not naturally generate one organism but only two organisms that had been mixed into one which is what a chimera is.

Looking into the past, I realize now that I was seen as “exotic” because I did not fit in the view of the patriarchal lens I was being seen through by co-residents and faculty. Rather than having them take their patriarchal glasses off, I was expected to change mine.