Amelia Beavis-Harrison talks about her experiences of visiting a male breast consultant, and why his reaction to her nudity highlights systemic sexism
I’m sitting in the office of Dr H waiting for my second breast consultation. I wouldn’t really be here if it wasn’t for casually mentioning some breast pain during my smear test earlier this year. But, due to concerns about my family health history, I find myself now sitting on a faux leather seat next to some shrubbery. I’m already feeling a bit uneasy, and knowing that Dr H is a man makes this delicate situation even more unsettling.
I’m sent behind the oddly-patterned curtain where a female nurse watches me undress, and Dr H mumbles some words before opening the curtains to find my tiny tits staring out at him. After lifting my arms in the air and giving my pain a 4 out of 10, Dr H prompts me to lie down. He mutters a few more words, comments that my left breast is lumpy, and then says he’s not concerned but is going to send me for a screening anyway.
But, then it happened. Whilst lying down half-clothed and letting this man with big, round fingertips poke at my nipples, Dr H did something so quietly violent I recoiled. He grabbed my clothes off the chair next to me, and in a crumple shoved them over my naked breasts, as if covering something he no longer wanted to see. As if they needed to be covered to save his shame for looking at them. And in that very confused moment, I sat up and hugged my clothes closely to my breasts as if I too was ashamed and felt I needed to cover them up.
I flash back to the handful of moments when this same kind of action has happened before. It seems that whenever my clothes have been shoved towards me in this manner, it is because my status with a man has changed. I have been fucked and I am no longer a useful sex object, I have been a performer and I am now without function, I have been a patient but I am now just a piece of paper: a form, a diagnosis. I placed my t-shirt over my head and pulled it down over my sad looking tits. “Sorry” they said.
It might seem that this action was slight and not worthy of writing about, but I believe it shows a fundamental problem with the way female patients can be viewed within a medical environment. Specifically, when there is a male consultant within a position of power examining a female body. A position so acute that they are able to write the words ‘cancer’, ‘referral’, ‘complete’ in bold ink. Ink, which at that moment in time, could dramatically impact that woman’s future.
A pair of naked breasts when being examined medically are controllable and potentially vulnerable in their exposure, being a part of the anatomy which is usually covered by fabric. The power rests with the consultant; the ones there to impart knowledge upon the person attached to these naked breasts. The moment the breasts cease to be a medical concern they are transformed: firstly, into a body, and secondly into a gendered and sexual object. In order to retain power and control of the now-gendered breasts, a male consultant has to quickly cover them before they begin to gain power as potential sexual objects that are out of place within the medical environment.
Although the NHS are actively addressing gender imbalances in their workforce, this hospital breast clinic is largely visited and staffed by women but has no female senior consultants. In the NHS, only 35% of all consultants are female, and when I searched for consultants in my region under the profession of ‘General Surgery’ ascribed to Dr H, 10 were listed as male and 3 female. Given the choice, I would have visited a female consultant.
Dr H is in a position of privilege. In the time that he has built his career, negative male attitudes towards women have become exposed in increasingly public spheres with high profile campaigns such as #metoo impacting government-level agenda, and casual sexisms being openly challenged. But outside of the high-profile cases, how much change is taking place? Without highlighting this situation to Dr H, he will presumably have forgotten and failed to acknowledge the incident. If society is to change it has to start with small actions and by addressing everyday sexism. Men must reflect upon their own learned behaviours in order to move forward.
Amelia Beavis-Harrison is a visual artist and activist based in Birmingham. She usually makes art, writes and protests when she is frustrated with a particular situation which often includes discrimination and government failings
The featured photo is courtesy of Unsplash and was taken by Martin Brosey. It is copyright free and depicts a man in a white lab coat folding his arms whilst holding a red stethoscope. Only his arms and torso are visible in the shot.