#ILookLikeASurgeon … Because Diversity Matters In Veterinary Medicine Too

Right around mid-August I tweeted this cute pic a client took of me after I’d performed a C-section on her dog. It was a timely tweet, orchestrated to coincide with the emergence of the #ILookLikeASurgeon hashtag on Twitter. 

It started when women engineers in the UK started posting pics of themselves on social media with the #ILookLikeAnEngineer hashtag. Female physicians and surgeons, feeling it every bit as necessary to advance the cause of gender diversity in medicine, took to the #ILookLikeASurgeon hashtag in droves. 

I glommed onto the hashtag with glee, of course. As an outspoken advocate for all kinds of diversity within what’s arguably the least diverse profession in the US, I ran with it. Too bad it took me this long to offer you a post on how I really feel about looking like I do in today’s veterinary medicine. 

Anyhow … better late than never. 

This post is adapted from one published in Veterinary Practice News this month.

In the Pink: Because Diversity Deserves Protection In Professional Environments

My clients aren’t always so subtle. When I start overhearing waiting room wisecracks about Halloween in July and dogs being blissfully colorblind, I know what’s being discussed. My hair might be odd-hued but that doesn’t mean I’m tone-deaf. But that’s OK. I’ve learned to accept these off-color remarks as the cost of doing business. 

Pink hair is weird. I get it. Still, this kind of commentary makes me think it’s too bad I didn’t elect enormous breast implants instead. Big boobs are undoubtedly more impressive but those apparently demand a certain degree of verbal prudence pink hair clearly doesn’t merit. (Which is strangely perverse, isn't it?)

Intolerance and the status quo

As you can probably tell from the tone of this post, the “professional” appearance thing has long been a pet peeve of mine. In fact, my profession’s lack of cultural and ethnic diversity, conservative outlook and outright racism have led to a glut of regulations on appearance in practice and a generally intolerant attitude towards those who don’t conform to what the profession’s leaders deem the status quo. 

Sure, there’s nothing we can do about your gender, the color of your skin or the accent you carry into an exam room but –– so the prevailing message goes –– you’d better make up for it by pressing that white lab coat and donning a pristine doctorly appearance to match your clients’ expectations. Because, as we all know, clients spend more at the practice when their veterinarians and staff look like they do. 

It’s true. The rules can be onerous. More so regarding female employee appearance, it seems. In fact, some veterinary hospitals will absolutely demand that female employees wear make-up. They’ll actually escort beauty-challenged employees to Sephora to secure their compliance. 

To me, this kind of regulatory behavior represents a shockingly insensitive invasion of my colleagues’ personal freedom. Which is why I like to push back and write about it. 

Past provocations

A few years back I submitted a column on the pedestrian topic of shoe selection. Another time it was tattoos. Even more recently I tackled certain management gurus’ politically objectionable fashion guidelines for veterinary staff. In them all I confessed to harboring a personal penchant for platform shoes and a high tolerance for ink and piercings among my personnel.

While intended to provoke thought on the role of appearance in our profession’s increasingly homogeneous companion animal culture, I secretly longed to put these to the test for the sake of the larger issue of diversity. My contention was that it shouldn’t matter what veterinarians and staff look like, hail from or wear as long as they do a brilliant job of caring for patients and their people.

In response, some of my readers commented that first impressions can be … well … impressive, and that appearance matters not just to practice success but to patient care, too. Most, however, offered that even a downright unprofessional appearance might be “overlooked” if a veterinary team “otherwise” excelled. 

Enter my recent experiment …

This summer I decided to take this latter hypothesis for a test drive. Now that I own my own practice and I’m my own boss, it was high time I fulfilled one of my more frivolous lifelong goals: tinting my hair pink.

But not just any pink, mind you. Clocking in at just a click under neon, this vibrant cotton candy hue would undeniably look more at home on the streets of London or Berlin than at a suburban animal hospital in Miami, Florida. Which raised the obvious question: What would my clients think? 

As I watched the shade reveal itself under the heat of a South Beach salon’s industrial blow drier, I’ll confess that I wasn’t so much thinking about my clients as I was about my über-conservative Cuban mother. This would not go over well. 

As predicted, it bombed with my mother –– as it did with almost every other person of a certain age and/or cultural origin (older and Hispanic, mostly). These clients either come off all polite, studiously ignoring the obvious (which I appreciate), or they unnecessarily take it up a notch, commenting on my poor taste in colors or worse –– brazenly remarking on the state of my sanity.

Now, partly this reaction has is to do with the excellent relationship I enjoy with my clients. These are longtime clients. Not only have they earned a certain degree of leeway and believe they’re being friendly, they likely have little experience with oddball hair colors in their personal lives (Lady Gaga and Katy Perry notwithstanding) and don’t know what to say. As such, I like to think they probably have no idea they’re being rude. 

Impressively, however, is that most of my clients claim to “LOVE it!” Which then made me worry it would prove an unwanted distraction. But as it turns out, the hair completely recedes into the background after the professional conversation ensues. Initial shock almost immediately softens into easy equanimity as soon as the patient takes center stage. 

After about a week I knew this little experiment would work out just fine. Better than fine, in fact. All these younger clients have been telling their friends about my hair and posting positive reviews. Practice marketing through hair color … who’d have thought it possible? Maybe I’ll change all my promo pics. Hmmm …

Not that it’s been a breeze, mind you. All those people of a certain age and cultural mindset? They comprise a significant percentage of my clientele. And I do not take their feelings lightly. After all, I understand that, in their eyes, how I present myself matters a whole lot. In their cultural lexicon, pink hair is senselessly clownish and rabidly subversive, not artistically motivated or even remotely cerebral –– much less a frivolous expression of preference.

Sure, sixty-something Helen Mirren wore her hair pink on the red carpet a couple years back. Despite her brilliant example, those in possession of certain cultural sensibilities are probably never going to “get it.” Worse still, many of my clients will never be able to get past it. Which doesn’t lend itself to the kind of trust I work hard to foster among my clientele. 

And begs the following questions …

Knowing that I’d risk alienating even a small number of my clients, why would I adopt such a shocking pink appearance? Why would I risk these relationships, which I clearly hold dear, knowing that my patients might suffer from the breach in trust that may result?

They’re great questions. Not least because they raise interesting arguments about the power of personal appearance when it comes to influencing others –– not to mention the putative responsibility of any individual to approximate the cultural norm for the sake of the “greater good” and practice success, alike (as touted by the above mentioned practice management professionals).  

While interesting, this line of thinking is kind of scary. After all, if certain cultural pressures were still in effect, there would be no pink haired veterinarians, for sure. But if you think about it, there would no women in the veterinary profession, either. 

Ultimately, my appearance is not only wholly superficial, it’s utterly meaningless to my patients. Moreover, it’s only one among a great number of variables that influences how I perform as a veterinary professional. I mean, why harp on the stuff that’s technically not even skin deep when factors like scientific curiosity, work ethic, and innate compassion should matter so much more? 

The way I see it …

I’ve already spent way more of my life than necessary altering my appearance to suit others. I’ve already twisted myself into scrub-clad, clog-wielding pretzels to match my profession’s penchant for a certain kind of uniformity. It’s about time the little insignificant things started to matter just a little less. 

The sad thing is that it took me this long to change something as simple as my hair color. But what’s even more telling is that I felt it necessary to own my own practice before going there. 

All of which makes me wonder what the future of veterinary medicine looks like now that fewer veterinarians are owning their own places and practice management is becoming an increasingly standardized subject of study. Probably a whole lot less colorful than it might otherwise look like –– in all kinds of ways. And that scares me. 

Colorless and homogenous is not what I want my profession to look like. Yet mine is one of very few professions that isn’t keeping pace with the diversity of our changing US population. Dubbed “the whitest profession in America” by some veterinarians and veterinary voyeurs, we’reapparently not very good at attracting ethnic minorities. Which probably shouldn’t come as a shock given some of the attitudes I’ve detailed above.

Which helps explain why I probably won’t be back to blonde anytime soon. Partly, anyway. I mean, pink isn’t just a political statement. It’s a glorious hue, too. You should try it. Really.

But don’t worry; you don’t have to go pink to express your solidarity with those among us who want to defy stereotypes and celebrate diversity within our ranks. Because, guess what, all you have to do is tweet a pic of yourself (if you’re a veterinarian), re-tweet someone else’s, or talk your favorite female veterinarian into joining in. It’s that easy. Thanks for playing!

-Dr. Patty Khuly