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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.

Amid all the whining about exams and stress and studying, I want to share with you one of my favorite things about medical school. I am sure I’ll come up with a few more in time (I am expecting awesome things from the simulation center, for example), but right now the highlight of every week is our class patient interview.

If you’re not familiar, a tried and true habit of medical schools since ye-olde-days is to get find patients with the disease you are studying and bring them in front of the class to talk about their condition. I suspect that in said ye-olde-days they also demonstrated their ailment or had to deal with some undignified poking and prodding by the presenting physician. In our class, thus far, they have simply sat in the front of the room with a clip-on microphone and answered questions by their physician or, in a few cases, a specialist in the field who may not have met them yet.

I have a few selfish reasons why I love patient interviews. First of all, it isn’t material we’re tested on. Yes, the disease of interest is related to what we are studying, but there is no expectation that we will take notes, and the interview is not recorded, for confidentiality reasons. We’re not even allowed to have our computers open during the interview, which is a big deal in a curriculum where everything is online. The only expectation is that we show up on time, we dress professionally and we wear our white coats. Some people do take hand-written notes, but I am happy enough for the chance just to listen for a change.

Besides the low-stress environment, a patient interview offers so much to learn. First of all is the variation. Lectures strive to teach you typical cases, but seldom do I expect a patient to walk into my practice with every single hallmark sign of a disease. It’s kind of fun to watch the physician try to lead the patient down a particular path (and when did you start to experience X symptom?) only to have the patient go off in an entirely different direction.

We also get the chance to see how a disease affects day-to-day life. Most of the lecture pathologies come with a cause, a list of symptoms, and perhaps a few lines about what the patient might say if they wandered into your office looking for a diagnosis. Patient interviews follow a narrative. They fill in the blanks between doctor’s visits and express frustrations I might not expect.

Also? I love any excuse to wear my white coat. I know it’s terribly dorky of me, and I’m usually uncomfortable in my nice clothes before I even get to school (last time we were all caught in a rainstorm that somewhat (haha) dampened the professional spirit), but dressing up for patient interviews makes me feel like I’m really in medical school. Like I’m actually going to be a doctor someday. That thought still catches me by surprise sometimes.

I do, however, wonder what it looks like from the patient’s perspective. I understand the need to dress professionally–how awkward would it be to talk about your health problems in front of 150 kids slouching around in T-shirts and sneakers–but I wonder if the white coats don’t make it a bit more intimidating than it needs to be. A friend of mine who has been the subject of such interviews said that everyone looked like clones. I suppose you have to be a brave soul to agree to the patient interview in the first place. I also wonder if it isn’t a bit pretentious for us first years, who know nothing much of merit, to be sitting around wearing these symbols of knowledge, as though we had something to offer this individual other than gratitude. Regardless, I am glad they are required, because if left to my own devices, I would never quite feel my white coat was an appropriate wardrobe addition.

White coats notwithstanding, I hope the interviewed patients have a positive experience as the subjects of our scrutiny. When the floor is turned over to the students for questions, at least one individual usually voices thanks for the opportunity. I hope the patients know how genuinely it is meant. We future physicians like to pretend that we’re something special, but in the end we are nothing without the trust of the sick. I have not yet earned that trust, and it feels very special that, despite that, there are those out there willing to put themselves out there for our education.