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Since starting medical school, I have been harboring a not-so-secret resentment towards the simplicity of men’s professional clothing. Button-up shirt and a tie, slacks, dress shoes, white coat and you’re done. Sure, there are variations on a theme and I’m sure there are men out there who put a lot of thought and care into their outfits, but even if you’re just falling on the basics it’s hard to go too wrong.

I don’t know anything about this dude, but I already trust him to save my life or take all my money.

It’s not that I don’t like getting dressed up. We had med school prom last weekend (I know, right?) and picking out a dress and accessories was an enjoyable distraction from academics. But that’s the thing about women’s fashion: it’s fun because it’s complicated. There are choices to be made, and choices mean a certain level of success and failure. Great for a night out when you want to make an impression. A pain in the neck when you’re running on four hours of sleep with an exam hanging over your head.

Let’s start from the ground and work our way up. Flats or heels? And if you go for heels, how high is appropriate and comfortable to walk around in? When and where are open-toes, open heels or sandals acceptable? Socks? Stockings? Tights? Bare legs? Dress, skirt or pants? And how short a skirt is acceptable? How tight a skirt is acceptable? How loose and flowing a skirt is acceptable? How large a belt? Is your skirt see-through? Is your shirt see-through? If it is, as is the case with most women’s clothing, what sort of undershirt should you wear?  Is it too low cut? Should you wear any jewelry? How much make-up?

The answer to any of these questions varies drastically depending on the person you ask. If you get it wrong there can be serious consequences. I’ve already written about the trials of wearing the wrong shoes, but there can also be more subtle types of pitfalls. For example, studies show that wearing exactly the right amount of make-up will help a women be taken seriously in interviews, but too much or too little will leave a negative impression.

There is this fine line between being attractive, but not too attractive. There can be absolutely no sign that you are attempting to look sexy, but it can be equally damaging to be perceived as “mannish” or plain. There are few solid rules to follow; the fabric of a shirt or the shape of the woman wearing it can push either extreme. And because of the subjective nature of these judgements, you may never know when or how you transgressed.

Clothing stores and designers are not helping either. There is no clear delineation between the different tiers of professionalism and fun dress when you walk into a department store. Watch any television show and the going standard for professionals seems to be six-inch stilettos and a carefully calculated cleavage-to-neckline ratio that defies most Newtonian laws of physics.

At least the skirt covers her knees?

I don’t mean to imply that all of the women in our class are walking a razor’s edge every time we’re expected to look professional for a patient. Still, it does take time and energy and attention to detail that I don’t expect the guys in our class experience in the same way. It is also starting to get expensive, not only because women’s clothes tend to be pricy but also because each outfit is distinct enough that repeats are noticeable even to the less observant. I’m sure the boys all change up their clothes regularly, but I’m paying pretty close attention if I even spot a repeat tie pattern.

Of course much of this stems from larger, systemic issues regarding the treatment of women in the workplace and the double standards we set for professional behavior. I could go on for days. In the end, though, I wish we could dispense with the whole mess and just all wear scrubs to work every day. How can you go wrong?

Okay, fair enough.


Hospitals are not the easiest places to navigate. It’s hard enough when you’re a patient; patients have clearly marked entrances and front desks and large signs that tell them what part of the hospital they’re in, and often which direction to find their target location. It’s slightly different for a student, who is generally assumed to know where they’re going, and even more so for a student who is not quite a part of the hospital system.

To get from the undergraduate section of campus to the medical school library, which is where I do most of my studying, one has to walk across two quads and across a rather busy street. It’s about a fifteen minute walk, and on a nice day that’s perfectly reasonable. When it’s 30 degrees, windy and raining, however, there are two alternate routes that lead through the winding corridors of hospital buildings that allow you to spend about half of the walk indoors.

One of these routes I learned when I started shadowing. I had to meet the clerkship coordinator in one of the west end buildings and follow her through twisting corridors and up and down stairs to the main hospital. At the end of my shift, I had to wind my way back through the hallways to her office to retrieve my backpack. It was sink or swim, and after that I knew a great way to cut through the building without having to step out into the blistering 85 degree weather until I was safely across the street.

There were a few problems with this approach, though, the first being that, while it was a great way to get back from the library, the front doors were locked to anyone trying to get in from the other direction. Reasonable, given that the building in question was mainly administrative offices that didn’t need an endless stream of noisy undergrads and med students using their building as a thoroughfare.

So one rainy afternoon, I decided to try to cut through the other building. This part of the hospital was devoted to outpatient care; clinics where the sick-but-not-too-sick-and-insured go to get procedures or check ups. These doors were not barred to be, and from the outside of the building I could see a straight shot from the entrance to the sky walk that crossed the street. Brilliant right?

Not once, but twice I attempted this genius shortcut. I walked through endless hallways and corridors, twisting passageways with exit signs where no exit appeared to exist. I followed signs for different areas of the hospital that surely must be close to something I might recognize. I meandered past long rows of administrative offices and turn offs for eye care surgeries, urology clinics and cancer radiation until finally, after my fifteen minute walk had become forty-five, I found myself in the main hospital, on the wrong floor in the midst of the usual busy weekday.

All this was made the more awkward by how intensely I did not belong in that complex of the hospital. The doctors I passed were in suits and lab coats; I, a twenty-something student with headphones and thirty pounds of books in my bag, was clearly out of place. I literally didn’t fit; said overstuffed backpack making it difficult to maneuver through hallways that, unlike the main hospital, were never intended to fit gurneys or wheelchairs. I tried to walk with purpose, but I clearly had no idea where I was going.

Yesterday was my final exam for organic chemistry, which was at two in the afternoon (not nine, as I’d been utterly convinced the day before) so I headed to the library to study beforehand. It was a particularly cold day, so as I headed back to the main campus I thought, better cut through. Now I could easily have gone my usual route, through the building that is locked going the other way, but in my infinite wisdom, I thought to myself, “Or I could go back through the other building and once and for all figure out how to go that way.”  Looking out the windows of the sky walk I could see a straight shot of where I wanted to go. Walk straight, turn left, exit. Piece of cake.

As you can probably predict I. Got. Lost. Again. Fortunately I had left with more than enough time to get to my exam because my “straight shot” managed to require a good fifteen minutes of my time just to get across the street. I thought I was walking in a straight line, but somehow, in the windowless corridors, I managed to proceed about ten yards in the time it would have normally taken me to get to campus. I felt like I’d fallen into parallel universe. Where had I been all that time?

When I finally emerged from the building I was only about halfway to my intended destination and had lost enough time as to make even the slightly longer time in the comforting warmth of the indoors completely without worth.

And so it is with this understanding, that I admit defeat. In the future, I suppose, I’ll just have to be cold.