Reading the UK Daily Mail article on Hannah Yard’s experience of being called “blondie” for a week and told that she needed to die her hair brunette to be taken seriously, gave me flashbacks to my experience of being a blonde in surgical residency. In turn, I am dedicating an entire blog as an ode to blonde lady surgeons.
I was called “brazen” for doing things unilaterally even though the chiefs and chairman made it absolutely clear with their actions and words that the upper levels were not going to mentor and that I was on my own. I was labeled as “inefficient” when I did ask for help. I was reprimanded to the highest level when I made a mistake. I was damned if I did and damned if I did not. I was labeled as “damning” for calling out circumstances that were setting me up to fail. The truth was that I was the one being damned. One thing I learned about working with patriarchal men is that they are phenomenal at projecting as a group their own behavior onto the person labeled as “other” and amassing a mob of unrelated people to believe that projected defense mechanism through use of the herd mentality. This is how very bad things in history happen and repeat themselves.
The program director actually told me I reminded him of “Blondie” the singer. Sadly he was one of those guys who, when a high school girl got an award for her physics project as noted in the local news, believed “her dad probably did the project”. Calling me Blondie was however a much classier label than being called “my call room wench” as a chief referred to me after making the point of mentioning that he needed a “recto-urethral massage”. This was while I was trying to type up a sign out. Thereafter, I decided to not use the call room.
In fact, the whole hospital seemed to notice my fair hair. I was labeled “the blonde resident”. Being more on the introverted side plus being insanely busy, no one really had the chance to know me nor seem to give as much importance to finding out my name as my hair color. As a consequence, I was confused with another resident. I guess this means all blonde women look alike or more accurately, that blonde women have been dehumanized the most into sex objects. My appearance did not just have an effect on men. I was told that I was a “good girl” when I did something correctly and a “silly girl” for not knowing something by other female residents.
The blonde experience did not end with me in this training program. An incoming blonde intern cut off all her long platinum blonde hair to make herself look more like a page boy. I choose the description page boy because this was the term used by one of my patients to describe the androgynous appearance she was expecting from me as her female doctor. She told me “you don’t look like a doctor.” I asked her, “what were you expecting?” She said “a page boy.” I asked her “why a page boy?” She said “that’s how young women doctors look. They look like page boys.” Her observations alluded to the fact that women suppress their femininity to be taken seriously. Co-residents used to poke fun at my higher pitch voice. It made me wish I had a voice like famous blonde Joanna Lumley. Her deeper feminine vocal pitch gains respect immediately from an audience.
The duality was strange. I was asked to be softer, more feminine by wearing my hair down and no glasses and be like “My Fair Lady”. Yet these same feminine gendered things that were being asked of me, were at the same time not respected in the work place. In fact, women who give up their femininity to avoid the struggle against gender bias end up conforming to and giving the patriarchy power. How is a girl to maintain respect while at the same time not be threatening to the male ego so she can learn from others and do her job effectively? Fashion is a very useful tool to help a woman walk this tightrope of dual expectations of her work persona.
To discuss fashion further, the chairman seemed to have an aversion to bright color in clothing. One day a medical student told me how the chairman kept staring at her orange shirt. She thought it was odd and unprofessional behavior. I had explained to her that it was reflective of his psychology and that he had shown previously to disapprove of bright colors with many people including me. The psychology of color I will leave to discuss in another blog. It is interesting though that in human societies bright colors have been given a female gender when in nature it is the male who is brightly colored. The brighter his colors, the more sexually dimorphic he is. Of course, humanity under patriarchal rule has everything backwards with regards to mother nature. Perhaps this is why the light reflecting color of blonde hair that catches the eye is so easily objectified because as a patriarchal society we associate brightness and colorful things with femininity. But in the words of Debbie Harry, “come up off your color chart, I know where you’re comin’ from.”