Response to #Medbikini: Standing Up Against Sexism in Medicine

Anyone who has been on social media recently probably noticed their feeds saturated with pictures of women posing in bikinis or holding a beer or otherwise enjoying life. No, these are not just your regular summer posts showing how people are enjoying their vacations. If you read the captions underneath these photos, you will witness female medical professionals raising their voices against a publication that has gone viral on the internet. In December 2019, The Journal of Vascular Surgery published an article titled “Prevalence of unprofessional social media content among young vascular surgeons.” This study’s goal was, to cite the article, “to evaluate the extent of unprofessional social media content among recent vascular surgery fellows and residents.” The article re-emerged, circulating on the internet and eliciting a powerful response.

As you begin to read the article, it appears to make reasonable claims. Certainly those of us in medicine agree that professionalism is vital, especially since we hold positions of respect in society. Physicians and nurses are held to a high standard both professionally and in the community, and the medical profession is constantly in the public eye. However, the article quickly goes downhill when we reach the methods section of the article. To gather information, “neutral” — or rather, fake — accounts were made on social media platforms by three males for the sake of evaluating the accounts of surgeons. This in itself is unsettling and seems stalker-like. In the results, the article cites potentially unprofessional behavior as “holding/consuming alcohol, inappropriate attire, censored profanity, controversial political or religious comments, and controversial social topics,” and then goes on to define inappropriate attire as “pictures in underwear, provocative Halloween costumes, and provocative posing in bikinis/swimwear.”

What raised the most outcry on social media was the statement that posing in bikinis/swimwear or Halloween costumes and holding or consuming alcohol is unprofessional. Additionally, labeling these as “provocative” raises the question of who is determining what is provocative and what is not. It’s no surprise that the research team and authors were mostly male. This article certainly appears to target females and lend critique to how they spend their time outside of work. We can argue that social media is an extension of ourselves, and how we present ourselves on social media leaves a positive or negative impression. Of course, health care professionals should be held to a standard on social media and not make HIPAA violations or demonstrate unlawful or harmful behavior. However, how a health care professional dresses or enjoys their time outside of work does not impact their ability to do their job. It is both saddening and angering that this article attempts to police women and say that how they dress and spend their leisure time is worthy of examination and can make it through an IRB and peer review. 

I am a nurse, but I am also a human being. I go to the beach. I wear a bikini. I (shocker!) enjoy a glass of wine or a beer with friends. When I am at work, I wear scrubs and take off my nail polish, and in the era of COVID-19, wear a mask, goggles, gown, and face shield. Sometimes I do not eat all shift and might not even go to the bathroom. When I go to work, in many ways, I put my individualities aside and put my patients first. Working in health care is taxing, both physically, mentally, and emotionally. Health care workers are experiencing burnout at alarming rates and are in dire need of relaxation and recovery time, especially during this pandemic. So when we go to the beach and don a bikini, the last thing we need to worry about is receiving critique.

Sexism is alive and well in medicine, and that’s sadly no surprise. The publication by The Journal of Vascular Surgeons is just one example. In fact, most female health care workers have their own story to tell about how they have been on the receiving end of it. Medicine has come a long way from the male-dominated, highly paternalistic traditions of previous eras, but there is still a long way to go. Female medical students should be able to report inappropriate comments made by their superiors without fear of retaliation or diminished chances of matching into a specialty. Female physicians being mistaken for other types of professionals or being told that they are “too pretty to be a doctor” should be a thing of the past. Female high school and college students should be encouraged to pursue their interest in medicine without being admonished that they will not have time for their future family and husband. 

On Friday, July 24, 2020, the editorial board of The Journal of Vascular Surgeons issued a retraction of the study. They even came forth on social media to issue their statement of retraction. One of the article’s authors, Thomas Cheng, made an apology on Twitter. The purpose of the #medbikini trend is not to tear down or belittle those who published the article, but to increase awareness of the prevalence of sexism and medicine through empowerment and advocacy. As a nurse and future physician, I am heartened to see so many women sharing their stories and standing up for themselves. I am also encouraged to see men in science and medicine advocating for their female colleagues. The impact of the #medbikini social media posts serve as a reminder that when we unify and advocate for change, we can see it happen. 


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