Too Damn Pretty

When at a doctor’s office, we’re automatically in a place of vulnerability. Physicians, who know more than us, and are more experienced than us, have the say, and our health is largely left up to their decision making skills and our occasional will to challenge what they say. Whether or not we actually listen to their instructions is entirely our decision, but our agency in choosing whether or not to take care of ourselves is largely irrelevant when sitting in a waiting room.

    Over the past eight months, I’ve had three surgical procedures, open incisions to pack full of gauze, and a severe case of shingles. After each of these experiences, I’ve stood up, wiped myself clean, and have kept studying or living or whatever else I happened to be concerning myself with at the time. However much experience and resilience I have, however, I’m still your typical vulnerable patient every time I step into a doctor’s office, my agency limited by their experience and the relative lack of assertiveness in my voice.

    Quite disturbingly, I’ve had a number of experiences with physicians that reinforced this lack of autonomy. While sitting in my hospital bed, sky-high due to the pain medicine I was given, a surgical resident commented on my (note: not planned) midline surgical incision. “Aren’t you so glad we put your bellybutton back into place?” she said, smiling widely at how pleased she was that I wouldn’t be too concerned with my anatomy once swimsuit season came around. My drugged, delirious self only nodded, while her comment stayed with me and had lasting effects on my psyche.

    The comments regarding how concerned I was supposed to be given my altered anatomy due to my surgeries continued. One of my surgeons reassured me that my incision was below my bikini line, so no one would see it. When looking at my scars, comments include “oh, don’t worry, they’ll fade” or “oh, those will normalize soon.”

    Perhaps the most disruptive comment I’ve received from a physician, however, occurred while I was sitting in a dermatologist’s office trying to get (what ended up being a severe case of shingles) diagnosed. As my elderly dermatologist looked over the sheer number of medical experiences I’d had over the past year, he glanced up at me and said, in a perfectly normal tone, “But you’re too pretty to have so many problems!”

    I was frankly left without words. Although I led myself to believe that his comment came out of a place of goodwill rather than from one of malice, it was still incredibly disturbing. I’m too pretty? Frankly, my self-esteem after being cut into time and time again isn’t the best, but regardless I hardly think that was the appropriate comment to make. My scars and my stories don’t make me any less strong or beautiful or independent. I treasure my perpendicularly placed incisions because they demonstrate strength and confidence and my experiences shouldn’t seem out of place just because I don’t look particularly ill.

I have a digestive disease, the symptoms of which aren’t incredibly pleasant to discuss (I’ll spare you the details) and the fixation that surgeons and a number of other physicians I’ve visited have on maintaining my physical appearance is disturbing. Is my worth as a woman and as a human being lessened because my skin isn’t incredibly smooth, or because I’ve lost some sensation in my right hip where my shingles used to be. All of these marks that scatter themselves across my body are symbols of strength, they demonstrate the life I’ve led and how I’ve grown because of my experiences. So give me a damn break. Ask me how I’m feeling, rather than commenting about my deformed anatomy.

Catalina Berenblum