Doctors and Nurses Started the #MedBikini Movement to Protest a Sexist, Body-Shaming Study
#MedBikini is an empowering new movement that's inviting women across the medical field to post photos of themselves in swimsuits. Why? Paired with informative captions, these posts are reminding us that yes, your doctor has a life outside of the office, and that's perfectly OK.
Seems self-evident, but apparently it wasn't for the authors of an article that recently hit social media. Originally published in December 2019 in the Journal of Vascular Surgery, the article was titled "Prevalence of unprofessional social media content among young vascular surgeons." The goal: to "evaluate the extent of unprofessional social media content among recent vascular surgery fellows and residents." The study was conducted using so-called neutral (aka fake) accounts to dig into the Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter profiles of the fellows and residents, looking for anything they deemed "inappropriate." This included any kind of "controversial" political and religious comments, and photos with alcohol or "provocative posing in bikinis/swimwear."
Women in the medical community swiftly took to social media to protest the sexism they detected in the study and its narrow definition of professionalism. In speaking to 13 of the many women who took part in the movement, we heard that the immediate response to the study was often shock, followed by outrage and disappointment, and then a determination to join together and speak out. "Me posing in a bikini on Sunday does not dictate the quality of care you will receive from me on Monday," said Nicole Sparks, MD, an ob-gyn in Atlanta. Added Risa Hoshino, MD, a pediatrician in New York, "[Women] have been body-shamed by men (and other women) all our lives and now a well-respected journal has validated our shame."
"I shared my photo in solidarity with all of the women in medicine who have been told to not be too nice but also not aggressive; not be too well-dressed but not look like a slob; not act like a know-it-all but not admit uncertainty; not act too perfect but never admit that you need help," said Yang Yang, MD, a vascular surgery resident.
And their voices made a difference: the article has since been retracted with an apology from the journal. (One of the authors also reportedly posted an apology to Twitter, though his account has since been deleted.)
Ahead, see the protest posts from 13 of the fierce female doctors and nurses who made this happen, and hear in their words why they decided to take part in the movement and where they hope it goes from here.
Pediatrician Risa Hoshino, MD
The journal's article hit a nerve for Dr. Hoshino. "All my life, I was told that my body was not good enough," she explained; she says society always told her she was "too short, too fat, too skinny, too Asian." She had to decide for herself to be confident in her body, "no matter what it looks like, because every body is a bikini body!"
The article, Dr. Hoshino said, "targeted women who were posting pictures with their family at the beach, at the pool, and on vacation on their own social media accounts." It reminded her not only of her past experiences with body shaming but also the sexism she's experienced in the medical field. "As a training doctor, I was told that I was not assertive enough (even though I spoke up often), but when I did project confidence I was 'too aggressive.' Whenever I didn't say sorry (for something I didn't do), I was 'not being polite enough,' but when I did say sorry I was 'saying sorry too much.'" Whether women doctors are wearing bikinis, dresses, or white coats, "it does not change the fact that we are rockstar doctors! It's my body and I am proud of it — and nobody else can tell me what to do with it." She said the movement that grew out of this outrage was "truly inspiring — we can make a difference by standing up for ourselves!"
Vanessa "Oma" Nzeh, MD, Internal Medicine — Pediatrics
"I decided to share my photo with the #MedBikini hashtag because six years ago as a medical student, I wouldn't have," said Dr. Nzeh. "As a Black woman, I have since realized that remarks on 'professionalism' and 'unprofessional behavior' specifically target bodies that look like mine." She now sees the need to be visible and "protest with my presence," especially for people like her who aren't able to do so. "The world needs to see and stop shaming Black and curvy bodies."
Dr. Nzeh's hope is that this movement "offers a small insight into what it feels like to be judged for simply existing," and sparks more conversations and lasting change. "I want people to recognize the tidal wave of power created when you rally together. This is what the #Blacklivesmatter movement is about as well," she added. "Uniting to create waves that crash into the social constructs specifically designed to marginalize an entire group of people. We are just hitting our stride."
Family Physician Avi Varma, MD
When Dr. Varma first saw the article, she wondered why it had been published in the first place. "I'm not sure what compelled the investigators to research this topic and how they determined what qualified as 'unprofessional behavior,'" she told POPSUGAR. She shared her photo "because I wanted people to see and hear my truth. This movement really hit home for me. As a woman in medicine, I have faced gender discrimination often. I have also faced maternal discrimination and sexual harassment." She wanted people to know "that I am more than just a physician, I am a mother, daughter, sister — I am a human being, and have a right to live my life the way that I want to."
Cardiac Nurse Alexandra Lukey
"The article is only one example of a pervasive issue in healthcare," Lukey told POPSUGAR. In order to make change, "you have to stand up and be counted," she continued. "It's not easy to be controversial. There are many that would say that the journal and the people who wrote the article did so with good intentions. However, blindness to this kind of sexist and backwards thinking is what perpetuates these unhealthy cultures in healthcare."
Wearing a bikini and having a political opinion, Lukey said, "doesn't make you unprofessional," and expecting otherwise "is unproductive and outdated."
"We should be focusing on the issues of professionalism that actually impact people's health such as racism, structural violence, and reproductive injustice, which are still all too common in healthcare," Lukey said. "Then we can worry about what people are posting on Instagram."
General Practitioner Monica Peres Oikeh, MICGP
Dr. Oikeh was outraged by the article, especially because she'd gone through similar "scrutiny and accusation" recently. "I was extremely upset," she said. "I couldn't sleep that night because I kept on thinking about what I went through and how upset I was for many weeks."
That prior experience almost cost Dr. Oikeh her career, she said. She joined the #MedBikini movement "in support of my fellow female physicians, and also as a way to stand up to those colleagues that judged me and keep on judging me." Female doctors have a life outside of medicine, Dr. Oikeh continued. "It definitely doesn't make them incompetent or unprofessional or unhireable because I have a public Instagram page where I share a snippet of my life."
Ob-Gyn Tosin Odunsi, MD
"When I initially saw the article circulating, I checked the date of publication. I thought, 'This can't possibly be recent,'" Dr. Odunsi told POPSUGAR. Reading further, she was disturbed that resources were being used on this kind of work when there were so many other healthcare issues in need of solutions. "Black women are three to four times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related death when compared to white women. As an ob-gyn physician, I believe that research on how we can actively lower this significant racial disparity is critical to the medical field."
By standing in solidarity with other women physicians, Dr. Odunsi said she also wanted to set a different baseline. "As Black and Latinx women, our bodies are often scrutinized as being unprofessional because we may have more curves than our counterparts," she said. Dr. Odunsi is the founder of The Mentorship Squad, a community offering mentorship to Black and Latinx women on their way to becoming physicians. "I wanted to empower my mentees and other physicians to be confident in their skin regardless of shape, size, or color." And what female healthcare professionals wear outside of work "does not change the fact that we are competent, highly trained, and committed to helping our patients achieve optimal wellness."
Psychiatrist and Clinical Researcher Pao Lavin, MD
"Female physicians, and most of the LGTBQIA medical community, have experienced the rampant sexist behaviors and other bias throughout our training and practice," said Dr. Lavin, who specializes in sleep and bipolar disorders. The difference now? "We have the opportunity to speak together and be heard."
She shared her photo as a way to stand in solidarity with others across the medical community who have experienced these biases. "I hope that we bring awareness and an opportunity for our male colleagues and people outside [of] the healthcare field to reflect on the assumptions and stigma towards female and LGTBQIA physicians," she said.
Registered Nurse Mayura Kulkarni, RN
To Mayura Kulkarni, the article felt personal. "I competed A LOT in pageants and have already been judged for doing them," she told POPSUGAR. "I was upset that some doctors could decide it was unprofessional to have pictures up in a bikini when I worked so hard to do that. In fact, I learned so much about healthy eating and exercise [through pageants]. I think I could use that knowledge to help my patients further."
She shared her photo because "I've personally felt the judgment," Kulkarni said. "I hope people realize it's never OK to judge someone based on something they see on someone's personal social media. What matters at the end of the day is the care that's provided to them!"
Vascular Surgeon Yang Yang, MD
The issue with the journal's article, Dr. Yang said, is in the authors' "attempts to define professionalism in regards to attire and political views, while simultaneously creating fake social media accounts to search and judge content from young vascular surgery trainees," she explained. "Are physicians not allowed to relax and enjoy a drink off hours?"
Dr. Yang shared her photo to prove "that there is nothing unprofessional about a bikini on the beach. I shared my photo to demonstrate that physicians can and should enjoy their lives outside of medicine. I shared my photo to demonstrate that being a woman and being a surgeon are not mutually exclusive." She hopes that the movement will help all physicians realize "just how widespread the misogyny and racism is in medicine," and to make the changes needed to create a more supportive environment for all.
Registered Nurse Rachel Patrick, RN
Professionalism shouldn't be defined outside your job, Rachel Patrick said. "If you are a badass in your role in the healthcare field and feel good rockin' a bikini, more power to ya! Competency is not defined by our social media content."
In joining in the movement, Patrick said she wanted to spread awareness and let everyone, not just women, know that it's OK to be yourself. "We shouldn't be shamed into not wearing bikinis or not enjoying a cocktail," she said. "I also wanted my followers to know that it's OK to use the social media platform to share your voice," she said, addressing the fact that the article also deemed discussing "controversial topics" as unprofessional. "There is no mold that we should feel we need to fit. We're all different. Our collective differences can actually help us give better care to our patients."
Internal Medicine Hospitalist Eva Beaulieu, MD
The medical profession "can be a very sexist world," Dr. Beaulieu told POPSUGAR. She joined the #MedBikini movement because, as a female physician, "I know what it's like to always have to prove myself just because I am a woman. In this profession, the men are held to a different standard, and that's not fair."
Doctors are humans first, she said, with families, ambitions, dreams, and lives outside of medicine. "If you see me at the beach enjoying myself with my family, and of course wearing a bathing suit (because what else am I going to wear at the beach!), just know that this does not change my commitment to my career or to my patients."
Periodontal and Implant Surgeon Zuly Fernández, DMD
Dr. Fernández trained for over 10 years and graduated from the Mayo Clinic, "so when a misogynist article from a reputable medical journal referenced women as 'unprofessional' solely based on their perception of what a woman should look like on social media, I was appalled," she said.
"My knowledge and work ethic does not correlate with my personal life outside of medicine," Dr. Fernández continued. And this movement, she said, represents a familiar struggle women face in many professions. "The harassment, discrimination, and passive-aggressive behavior have to stop."
Ob-Gyn Nicole Sparks, MD
When Dr. Sparks heard about the article, "I was appalled and disgusted that this type of paper, in 2020, could make it through a peer review process and then actually be published. I certainly don't think it is professional to secretly survey anyone's social media to determine my qualities as a competent and professional healthcare provider."
Dr. Sparks was hesitant to join in at first. "As a Black woman, I have dealt with sexism and racism more times than I can count. I didn't initially want to share a bikini picture for fear of the criticism that may follow." She decided to post, believing that there's power in numbers and that, when women work together, "we can make a powerful statement."
"What I wear on my social media doesn't dictate my abilities as a physician and certainly doesn't dictate my professionalism," Dr. Sparks added. As doctors and women, she said, "I hope that we will continue to amplify our voices to effect positive change."