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Assimilationism

Assimilationism is the act of encouraging minority cultural groups to be similar to larger cultural groups.”

This word is one I’ve only learned in the past year or so, but I’m glad I did because I realised that it is something that I experience in a few different ways. I’m going to describe a couple here.

1. Heteroassimilationism

This is usually expressed in the idea that Queer people would have such an easier time of things if they just behaved like all the “normal” people. The idea that Pride would be a lot easier for people to “deal with” if it wasn’t full of people dressed and acting outrageously. Or when LGBT campaigns put forward the idea that the mainstream should accept us because “hey, we’re just like you!” – we want to get married, have kids, serve in the army, all the things you straight people want!”

Of course having equal access to marriage, adoption/fertility treatment + military service is important, but this kind of campaigning erases the experiences of Queer people who have no interest whatsoever in being “just like a straight person”.

2. Assimilationism in medical culture

Medicine is *extremely* hierarchical. A professional hierarchy is of course necessary to some extent – for newly graduated doctors to have the same level of responsibility as those who have been in the job 20 years would be dangerous and stressful for everyone. But the social hierarchy that we have really grates on me.

Doctors don’t just have a hierarchy within our teams, but some specialities in medicine have a culture of superiority over others. There are stereotypes for most specialities – anaesthetists just sit around all day, orthopaedic surgeons are knuckle-dragging morons, all surgeons lack empathy, etc. I think that patient safety and care quality would also be helped if we stopped trying to say that people working in other specialities are idiots! Do I sound like a hopeless hippy when I wonder why we all can’t respect each others’ expertise, the medical training we all have in common, and do our best to get along?

I’m really glad to find that recent reviews of the NHS have suggested that a less hierarchical workplace would be good for patient safety – the idea being that since junior doctors rotate round into different teams every few months, we bring a fresh perspective to the established practices in a workplace. We are uniquely placed to spread good ideas across different workplaces and notice when a team’s standards of care have drifted. I have a natural inclination to challenge lazy thinking, poor practice, stereotyping etc. I am still working on my skills at doing this without rubbing people up the wrong way – sometimes when I’ve asked someone questions about why they did something the way they did (consultants included) it has gone well, but other times it hasn’t and I’m trying my best to learn from my experiences. Having some of my views backed up by a prestigious review of health care in the UK strengthens my conviction that I don’t have to be assimilated into the medical social hierarchy to be a good doctor.

Of course, the heteronormative assimilation I experience in mainstream society is also present in medicine. My experience of this isn’t helped by the fact that I feel my queerness and my disability make me vulnerable socially, and so at work I tend to be more reserved and less vocal about my personal life than my more “normal” colleagues get to be. I think takes me longer to feel “safe” in a “mainstream” social group than it does with people who I know understand certain things about me, like what polyamory is, the fact that people have pronoun preferences, what pansexual means etc.

Since starting entering the medical profession I’ve begun to explore the boundaries of what is considered a “professional” or an “unprofessional” appearance for a doctor – standards which I believe are based in the medical profession’s origins as a profession run by rich white men. In my first job a nurse complained to my supervisor that she felt that my ear cartilage piercings were unprofessional. To his credit my supervisor told me that it was my body and what I put in it was nobody’s business but mine, but that I might want to think about how my piercings affected how people saw me. Happily I was able to tell him I hope that my appearance helps people to see that I’m the kind of person I am AND a doctor at the same time, which will hopefully challenge people’s stereotypes of what kinds of people get to be doctors. After a few months my supervisor let me know that I’d changed his mind, and that he admired me for sticking to my guns.

I’ve also tried having unnaturally coloured hair at work (I’m not the only hospital worker I’ve seen with pink hair, just the only doctor) which has similarly gone quite well and I’ve received compliments from some medical colleagues which has been great. I’ve also started using the phrase “one of my boyfriends” when the topic comes up, which has been quite interesting – some people don’t react in the slightest which does make me wonder if their brain has censored out my words, like a Derren Brown mind trick. Each further step I take helps me to feel more secure in being myself at work, which is considerably more comfortable than feeling that I have to be closeted all the time.

Hopefully though the effects of the decisions I make on how to present myself at work, won’t just have the effect of making it a more comfortable place for me to be, but will help other people to feel that they can be themselves – both hospital workers and patients. I believe that a diverse population is best served by a diverse population of healthcare workers. And I also believe in “being the change you wish to see”. This stuff is important to me, which is why I do it, and why I write about it. I’m really interested to hear about other people’s experiences of challenging workplace cultures, where the desire to do so comes from, your successes and times when things went less well. Leave your comments below!

Resisting the Hidden Curriculum

I first heard the term “hidden curriculum” mentioned in my first year of clinical training at medical school. The majority of first year medical students are extremely excited to finally be at medical school, after years of planning and work, exams and interiews. They are keen to meet patients and idealistic about what the life of a doctor is like.

We were warned that as we progressed through medical school and into the clinical workplace, we would see doctors who were cynical, disengaged from their patients, who didn’t appear to “care” as much any more, and whose practice might be somewhat ethically questionable.We were warned that if we were not careful, we’d end up like them. Some authors go further than that and warn that if we are not resistant to this erosion of ethical values we put ourselves at risk of repeating the atrocities of the Nazi regime. These changes are not what medical school aims to teach, but things that people pick up along the way, learning from the examples set by more senior doctors, and so it gets called the “hidden” curriculum.

As I’ve gone through medical school I have seen friends of mine become more cynical.  Some seem to see patients as a chore. I know of people who seem to think that being a doctor makes you superior to other people, or that being a particular kind of doctor makes you superior to other kinds of doctors as well as everyone else.

Medical culture has lots of insidious norms, some of which I’ve written about before – the idea that you’re a bad doctor if you’re happy to go home at the end of the day, or if you’re not willing to work hours and hours of unpaid overtime. That if your priority in life is to be happy, you can’t have a career as a surgeon. That “patients” are a class of people and are somehow different from us, or that patient is problem to be solved rather than a person asking for help.

That doctors somehow never get ill.

I don’t think any of you will be surprised to learn that throughout my medical career I’ve put considerable effort into trying NOT to become indoctrinated (‘scuse the pun) into medical culture. I’ve tried not to become cynical, and to continue to treat my patients as people, and to be open about my health affecting my ability to work, and to resist when people try to tell me that being a doctor means making all these compromises that I’m not willing to make.

I will be writing more about specific parts of medical culture that I find troubling, but for now I’m going to leave it at that. I would really like to hear of other people’s experiences of workplace culture, and medical culture, any problems you’ve come across, and any solutions or ways of coping that you’ve come up with.

Why I love roller derby, and why I’m not going back to skating (for now)

A bit of context: I started roller derby 2 years ago in Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK. I have since moved to Middlesbrough, just over a year ago, and broke my leg at a skate practice in January, have been “off-skates” ever since. If you want to know more about how the sport itself works, look here.

Roller derby is punk – it is counterculture. It is women of all shapes and sizes getting together and making something for themselves, and not subscribing to conventional ideas of what a “good” woman is. And that makes it radical. It is women being muscular, aggressive, and hitting each other. It is women being tactical, working together in a team and not being bothered about what their teammates look like but what they can do.  Roller derby bouts are fun, noisy events. They have suicide seats (sitting on the floor close to the track, with a real risk of ending up with a roller girl in your lap), fast food, stalls for independent local businesses, half-time entertainments. They are (in Britain at least) a very different way of doing sport.

When I first started roller derby, it was at a kind of difficult time in my life. I’d been recently diagnosed with depression, and having a community and regular exercise to go to was pretty therapeutic for me. I loved the friendliness of my local team (Newcastle Roller Girls) and the league was growing pretty fast at the time so it was all very exciting.

Roller derby is a growing sport. It is a grassroots, bottom up movement that is made by the people who build the leagues, go to the practices, organise bouts themselves, etc. Each league needs a mix of people – not just the top athletes who want to be the best skaters in the world, but the people who have good coaching skills, who welcome new players, who can design posters/flyers, who know how to handle money, etc.

Some players wish that roller derby were taken more “seriously”. They want to get rid of “boutfits” and instead have uniforms. The don’t want to have punning bout names (Block to the Future, Crouching Blocker Hidden Jammer, Sweet Home Alajammer) and instead give the bouts numbers. This is not the roller derby I signed up for! I LOVE that roller derby is a radical, grassroots sport organised by women for women. I do not need roller derby to be “sanitised” so that the mainstream will “take it seriously”. Roller derby is the first ever sport that I’ve actually felt interested in playing/following, precisely BECAUSE it is a fun sport, because it isn’t snobby, because it welcomes with open arms women of all shapes, sizes and socio-economic backgrounds. Individuals get to express their skate persona through their name, number, makeup and outfit. I’m all for people being able to express themselves by not having a skate persona, not wearing makeup, not wearing fishnets or a tutu, etc, but some people in roller derby want to get rid of what, in my opinion, makes roller derby great.

I have read articles by people who did give everything to their league – spent all their time on it, thought about skating 24/7, and after a few years had a bit of a shock when they looked around and realised that they’d been neglecting everything else in their life. I don’t want roller derby to be a sport which makes people do that. I want it to be a sport which improves people, physically and mentally. And I think that in order to do so it has to be a sport which doesn’t eat people up and spit them out, but which nurtures. I’ve seen people stop skating altogether because they couldn’t come to every single practice, they couldn’t give as much as some of the other people in the league, due to things like having kids, or a job that goes in shifts. This is sad because, although they might not have the time to become the best skater in their league, they still had something to give and I think the league was worse off without them. There is a danger of having a culture in roller derby that makes people burn out, and that isn’t good for the people involved, for their leagues, for the sport in general.

Right now I have a lot of things going on in my life – trying to get through my training at work, working a shift pattern, looking after myself and my cats, trying to have a social life in Middlesbrough, and my mental health has not been great. My leg isn’t broken any more, but it isn’t anywhere near back to normal. I can’t give as much to my local league as I would like, and my local league is currently one of the ones trying to make roller derby ‘serious’. So for now, I’m hanging up my boots, and hoping for a time when I can give my best to a league which has the kind of community and values that first brought me to the sport.

Further gym update: I’m in the local paper.

Well, I’m in the local paper (complete with comedy “I’m fed up and I’m wearing a skirt” photo!) I did call up the journalist who wrote it to let her know that the gym had apologised for treating me the way I did, but it looks like they have gone with a quote from the gym which still implies that I was dressed inappropriately! I find this odd since I was told on the phone by Michelle Chambers, area manager for the gym, that my skirt was NOT inappropriate. I have emailed her for clarification, and will probably be wearing that skirt to the gym again at some point.

If you don’t mind reading things which might make you facepalm, have a look at the comments section. Apparently fat people shouldn’t wear short skirts, doctors are not allowed to have silly hair, and women who lift weights aren’t allowed to have big arms. I’ll make a note of that.

Gym update: They apologised!

I got a phonecall from someone at the regional office of DW Sports Fitness today, apologising for both the way I was treated on Saturday, and for the fact that I’d been told that a skirt is not appropriate to wear in the gym. They said that even if I had been dressed inappropriately, then it should have been dealt with differently, and that of course it is fine to wear skirts in their gyms. Thank goodness! In celebration I went to the gym this evening in my netball skort and a crop top.

Responses to my being asked to leave the gym for wearing a skirt

Today a journalist from the local paper came round to get more information on what had happened and take some pictures of the “inappropriate” outfit. I have also had an email back from DW Sports/Fitness (in which they addressed me as “Mrs” Parker!) asking what branch of the gym I am a member of. Nothing else from them as yet.

I posted links to this post on Fitocracy, Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook and Reddit. Here are a selection of the responses:

  • “I’m guessing people were just confused/didn’t know how to react but that’s no reason to treat you like that or kick you out.”
  • “I lifted in a skirt just last night. How infuriating to be kicked out for that! Just all around strange. It’s unfortunate when assholes can’t mind their own business.”
  • “Pretty sure my little walmart workout shorts are shorter than your skirt. My full brief underwear will show if you really try and look between my legs on the stair climber. I assume people will either not look or look away if the see something they didn’t want to.”
  • “Geez, I’ve seen girls at gym in shorts so short they may as well be panties! By which I mean, shorts are not by default more modest than a skirt. Ultimately it shouldn’t matter what you wear to gym as long as the required parts are covered.”
  • “I think I’m at the gym for me and not for anyone else and as long as I’m not breaking a law, I don’t want to hear anything about what I work out in. IF someone can see between my thighs, the way I see up mens shorts, I would expect them to look away.”
  • “This made me want a cute sport skirt so badly.”
  • “Asking you to leave was a dick move. I’ve seen the shit some girls work out in and I don’t see how a skirt would be any more revealing or dangerous.”
  • “I completely agree that there are many fitness shorts just as small as the underwear she was wearing. Also, you can see up people’s baggy shorts, you can see people’s thongs sticking out the top of their pants, and you can see people swimming in swimsuits at the gym. Sometimes when swimsuits are involved, there is pubic hair and other sights involved. I don’t think you should have been kicked out or complained about. I’m really sorry this happened to you.”
  • “I don’t work out, but I have boyshort-style underwear that I couldn’t wear underneath some women’s “workout” shorts because they’d show… they cover more than the shorts. And, no, they’re not flimsy or see-through, either.”
  • “even if were uncomfortable I wouldn’t ask the person in the offending skirt to leave (or get the attendant to do so). I’d just deal with it, and maybe make a sarcastic Facebook post about it to get it off my chest!”
  • “Men can work out in shorts and NOTHING else. Women are expected to have everything covered, and the person who complained was “uncomfortable” with the fact that they could see something that is considered sexual by society. Men not covering themselves does not make people uncomfortable, but a woman doing the same thing does. This is definitely a feminist issue.”
  • “I can see why another patron might find barbell squats in a skirt a little distracting. I certainly don’t think she should have been kicked out for it. The whole thing seems like it blew up more than it should have.”
  • ” If someone has a problem seeing your underwear then they should not be looking at your nether region. I doubt they would ever stop a man for something like that.”
  • “I was a cheerleader throughout many years of my life (including in high school, ie underage) and we wore skirts with “briefs” underneath them (and underwear under those). We are athletes who compete in athletic competitions, and most people have seen cheerleaders, even if just on tv or in movies. No one seemed to think it was inappropriate.”
  • “I’m just still scratching my head about the fact that people are seriously arguing that if they had been shorts labeled “shorts”, it would have been fine, but if the exact same shorts are labeled “underwear” then it is not fine. Maybe I need more coffee, but if the label is all it takes to make people go from “oh no problem” to “oh my god I can see her underwear throw garlic and holy water” then I am seriously confused.”
  • “Your gym is messed up.”
  • “I’ve seen girls at the gym in see through leggings or tiny skirts all the time!”
  • “Sorry you got this crap. Hope you get a good response & the people at the gym get a thrashing.”

An email to the customer services department of DW Sports

Hello,  

Today I was kicked out of the Teesside branch of DW Sports for the crime of wearing a skirt to work out in. I was told that skirts are not “appropriate” clothing to work out in, despite there being no such stipulation in the terms and conditions of gym use. I am appalled at this action and have contacted the local press. Many sportswomen wear dresses and skirts, and women boxers at the Olympics this year were almost FORCED to wear them, yet your gym is so out of touch that they tell me that I can’t work out there while wearing a skirt? This is absolutely preposterous. If Serena Williams can wear a dress at Wimbledon, if our national netball team can play in dresses, then by what justification are skirts “inappropriate” sportswear? I would like to know whether the actions of staff at this particular branch of DW Sports are in line with the national company policy, and I would like an apology for the way I have been treated. 
 
Sincerely, 
Sy Parker

On the left, the outfit I was wearing when I was asked to leave. On the right, the outfit I wore the next day with no problems from anyone. This is clearly not an issue of modesty

Dear readers,
I am still slightly in shock at the way I have been treated at this gym. I was told by the member of staff who kicked me out that someone had come to reception desk and complained about me. She said that I had to wear shorts in the gym and that people could see my underwear. You know, the roughly shorts-shaped underwear I had on under my skirt in order that I not flash my genitals to the world. In fact I own pairs of shorts that are SMALLER than the underwear I was wearing under that skirt. Perhaps they were freaked out by the fact that I was doing barbell squats – after all it is unladylike to lift weights, and anyone who transgresses gender roles must be punished. These days there are entire websites dedicated to selling skirts for sports and working out, and yes, some of the shorts that go under the skirts are the size of the underwear I was wearing. Then there are the work out shorts for sale that are actually smaller than what I was wearing. This is not an issue of whether or not I was dressed “modestly”, it is of whether women are responsible for the people in their workout environment getting “distracted” by the presence of their body in that workout space. I don’t go to the gym to be objectified, I go there to lift weights. Perhaps I should just wear one of these – it will leave nothing to the imagination, and is most definitely “appropriate” attire for working out.
If you would like to email customer services to find out what their policy on skirts is, the address is customer.services@dwsports.com
The phone number for my local branch is 01642 256266
They can also be found on Twitter: @dwsportsfitness
I posted a link to this blog post on reddit, the discussion can be found here

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