It was last Friday afternoon, and I was leaving work early in order to make a doctor’s appointment with my new primary care physician. The organization that I work for has just changed insurance carriers, and I was randomly assigned to a new doctor within the network. As I rushed out of the Brooklyn middle school where I run the after-school program, students and teachers alike asked me where I was going. It was just as school was letting out, the time when I would normally be downstairs getting ready to start program.
“Yo, miss, there’s no after-school today?”
“No, there is, go on down!” I waved one of my students down the stairs, pulled on my heavy winter coat, and pushed through the door into the clear, cold afternoon.
On the sidewalk, I quickened my pace as I hurried for the subway. I hadn’t left as early as I had intended to. There was a parent on the phone for me, and then I remembered I needed the principal to sign something that needed to be faxed before the end of the day. Then, I realized that I hadn’t–
“Just go!” My assistant had to tell me. “You’re late!”
As I sat in the waiting room of the doctor’s office, filling out paperwork, I managed to relax a bit. I had prepared my staff well enough to handle an afternoon without me. I can get pretty focused on work, and I often have to remind myself that it’s important to take care of my personal stuff, and make time to do grown-up things like scheduling doctor’s appointments.
This feeling of pride at accomplishing the small task of scheduling and keeping a personal appointment was still with me as I started the conversation with my new doctor, who I will call Dr. Alan. Middle-aged and glasses-wearing, my first impression of Dr. Alan was that he seemed normal enough. While looking over my paperwork and clicking his pen, he asked me all the usual questions that doctors ask, like do you smoke (nope), and so forth.
The trouble began when he asked what at first seemed like an innocuous question.
“Are you married?”
“And what does he do?”
Now, I know this is just small talk territory here. However, this question came before asking me what I do. I should have seen where the conversation was headed, but like so many of the tiny slights that women suffer on any given day, I hadn’t yet recognized this one.
“He’s a lawyer.”
“Wow, good for you!”
I refrained from rolling my eyes. So this guy is from a generation who still considers it cute to make jokes about how women are all just trying to bag doctors and lawyers for husbands. Whatever.
Dr. Alan proceeded to ask me how old my boyfriend was and how long we’d been together. When I explained we’d been living together for several years in several different cities, he took the opportunity to drop some knowledge on me about my generation.
“The young men of your generation have brainwashed you young girls. They have! They’ve brainwashed you into thinking that you don’t need to get married.”
He pressed a cold stethoscope to my back as I chewed on that little gem and inhaled deeply.
“And what do you do?”
Finally. “Well, I work a for a non-profit, I’m the director of an after-school program.”
He looked inside my ears. “Ah, working with the kiddies. And what’s the game plan there? Where do you see yourself in five years?”
The kiddies? The game plan?
“You should get a master’s degree. Did you know you have an ear infection?”
I opened and closed my mouth several times and readjusted my paper robe. “Uh. No. Really?”
“I’ll write you a prescription for some antibiotics.” He poked and prodded my stomach and my lower back. “Your muscle tone is not where it should be. Are we exercising?”
I felt a flush creep up my neck, and a laugh escape my throat. “Not particularly! But I do live on the third floor of a walk-up, ha, ha.”
He didn’t laugh. This was a serious matter. “You need to start thinking about getting in shape now before you start raising your family, because once you do, it’s going to be too difficult to catch back up. You’re going to be busy and you’re not going to have the time.”
“You remind me of my wife when she was young,” he said, beaming at me and shaking my hand. “She was also a pretty brunette, like you.”
I smiled thinly, wondering why this man thought it was supposed to make me feel special that he had just described me the same way you could describe 3/4 of the human population. When he left, I dressed quickly. Feeling small. Within twenty minutes of meeting this man, he had criticized just about every aspect of my life: my job, my relationship, my body.
On my way home, I tried to get my thoughts in order by sending several cursory texts to E. Her reaction confirmed everything that I was feeling:
After the initial supportive outrage, she also posed a very astute question that succinctly illustrates everything I was feeling: Has my boyfriend’s doctor ever told him that his muscle tone is not where it “should” be? Asked him why he wasn’t married? Told him to “get in shape” in preparation for having a family (which he has never mentioned he has any plans to have)??
I knew the answer. There are plenty of ways to frame the issue of exercise without the words “raising a family”. If a doctor ever told my boyfriend (or E’s husband, or any guy) to hit the gym, I’m sure it was framed as a simple matter of health. Just like if my boyfriend runs into our building’s super in the laundry room, he’s not going to get questioned about what he chooses to do with his life, but when I run into our building’s super in the laundry room, he encourages me to quit my job in order to become a plus-size model**. When my boyfriend grabs a coffee from the corner store, they call him “boss” and they call me “princess”. When you know what? I’m the boss. THIS WAS THE BIRTHDAY CAKE THAT MY STAFF GOT FOR ME:
I wish I could say that what Dr. Alan said to me didn’t hurt me, but it did. It hurts to be belittled and undermined, even by complete strangers. Even if you know it’s garbage, it still hurts when people try to tell you that the only thing you have to offer as a woman is your body, whether that be as something nice for men to look at, or as a baby making machine, or both.
Just take a deep breath. Text your best friend. Call your insurance company. Change your doctor. Eat your boss cake.
**Actual thing a person said to me, in complete earnestness