You Are What You Wear

Heather O. continues her guest series with us.

I own a pair of light blue scrub pants. They have the words “University of Utah Medical School” stamped across the left back pocket. Or is it the right? (My husband could probably tell you.)

The story of how I acquired these pants is not exactly pretty.

I was pregnant, and one day, while driving in my car, I started bleeding profusely. I was, thankfully, within minutes of my medical clinic, which happened to be at the University of Utah. I took my bloodsoaked self in there, explained to a shockingly slow nurse that I was bleeding and needed immediate assistance. She told me to take a seat and wait. It was only after I asked her if she had a towel I could sit on so I wouldn’t ruin the chairs in the waiting room (WHY do we think about things like that at times like those?) that she bothered to peek over her counter and see that my blood was staining her rug.

In the ensuing aftermath, when it was noticed that my pants were thoroughly covered in blood, I was offered a clean pair of scrubs to go home in. I washed them, and in the ensuing grief over my miscarriage, never bothered to give them back. Sue me.

But this isn’t a post about miscarriage. It’s a post about scrubs. Well, you know, sort of. Stay with me, here.

I am (or was) a Speech Language Pathologist, and have spent my career (such as it is) working with adult patients in acute or subacute settings. A large part of my caseload involves evaluating patient’s swallowing skills. As such, I often use a stethoscope while I do a bedside swallow evaluation. I place the stethoscope next to the patient’s Adam’s apple, and listen to the swallow. You’d be amazed what kind of information I can get, just by listening. (And I promise the stethoscope part is important to my overall point, so again, stay with me here.)

I worked for about a year at a hospital where the entire staff was required to wear scrubs. White jackets were optional, but I’ve found that wearing a white jacket that has lots of pockets comes in pretty handy when you have to wear scrubs that have no pockets at all (except for the back pocket that may or may not have stuff stamped across it). At the time of my employment, I had 2 white jackets, long ones that came almost to my knees, but no real proper scrubs. So, my first day of work, I showed up wearing my white coat, my stethoscope, a longsleeve white sweater, and my pale blue University of Utah scrubs.

I learned two lessons that day:

1)When you wear pale blue scrubs and a long white coat and have a stethoscope slung over your neck and a little medical ID badge clipped to your lapel, people think you’re a doctor.

2) People treat doctors WAY differently than they treat Speech Language Pathologists.

One of my first swallow evaluation orders was for a patient who was still in the ICU, and, being a newbie, I didn’t know the code to get into the locked ICU floor. I walked over to the receptionist to have her give me the code. She was on the phone. I waited patiently for her to finish. She took one look at me, however, and said to whomever, “I’ve gotta go. I have a young doctor here who looks like she needs some help.” She hung up immediately, and gave me a deferential smile and said, “How can I help you?”

I got the same smile as I walked through the ICU. Nurses would look up, glance at me, and give me a big grin. Everybody took notice of me, like they were trying to size me up. People were helpful, friendly, and, again, that deference.

Sheesh, no wonder doctors get god complexes. It was enough to make me want to wear blue scrubs every day.

The icing on the cake came when I stopped at the grocery store on the way home from work. I had taken off my white coat, and ditched the stethoscope, but there wasn’t much I could do about my scrubs. As I was standing, staring at the cereal, another scrub-clad fellow walked past me. He was dressed in pale green, and had a beeper strapped to the elastic band of his pant. He took in my appearance, looked me up and down, and gave me a knowing smile. Like we were part of the same club. He picked out his cereal, gave me a little salute, and said, “See ya around.” Like there was a possibility that he and I would bump into each other at rounds, or some medical conference. Or in the doctor’s only lounge, drinking coffee and discussing our latest bowel resection.

The next week, I bought myself a pair of proper navy blue scrubs, and some red ones. I thought they were at least as fetching as my pale blue ones, especially as my husband tells me I look good in red.

Yeah, well, I learned something else. Doctors don’t wear red scrubs. And receptionists who know the new code for the ICU will make SLPs wait until they finish their phone calls.

All in all, my day was actually a quite interesting little social experiment. People do actually treat you differently according to what you wear. I’ve been sporting the same T-shirt and jeans look for so long, I suppose it hasn’t occurred to me that wearing something different would get me a different reaction. Has anything similar happened to any of you? Because it was a new experience for me.

(Although I will say that there was this one time in college where I was dressed up for a formal, and some guy who lived on my floor walked past me and stopped to hit on me, clearly not recognizing me. When I clued him in to who I was, he got this crazy look of horror on his face, but that’s a story for another time.)

And, may I suggest, if you are having a down day, to get yourself a pair of pale blue scrubs and go to the grocery store. You’d be amazed at how fast it can boost your self-esteem.

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  1. Darn, I should have been a doctor.

    Except for that bowel resection thing.

  2. I’ve noticed that I get more attention from men when my hair is red. I’ve never tried wearing scrubs. I should wear scrubs whilst having red hair and see if I get asked out by any hot doctors.

  3. Wear a suit and tie to a courthouse, and the same sorts of things tend to happen. Judges call you “counselor” and hopeful wanna-be clients approach you in hallways and elevators, asking “You a lawyer?” Usually the safest response to those queries is “I was just disbarred.”

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    What a great story, Heather!

    For about six months before my mission I worked in a hospital sterilizing surgical instruments. The guy I was replacing always wore scrubs. The manager of the dept. wanted him to wear some sort of a white uniform with the idea it was more professional, but he always put her off, and I followed his lead. I continued to wear scrubs my entire tenure there. I thought they were great; it was like working in pajamas, and I didn’t have to mess around with laundry. But I don’t think too many people confursed my 19-year old self with the big afro with an actual doctor.

  5. I really need to get me some scrubs. Maybe I’d get treated with more respect.

  6. Mark Brown says:

    Ah, you SLPs with your fine-twined and costly scrubs.

    Good post Heather, and thank your for blogging here for a while.

  7. In Las Vegas, you never start through an intersection when the light turns green; you wait almost until it turns yellow so that you can miss most of the guys who continue to drive through long after the light in their direction has turned red. My family got so we never looked up anymore when we heard squealing tires in the intersection near us. We were dialing 911 before the crashes came, and soon learned the four-digit Fire Department designation for our intersection so that the dispatcher didn’t even have to look it up.

    Then I started working for the Fire Department myself, just a lowly secretary keeping track of the dates of fire hydrant tests and hotel inspections. I did get to wear a uniform, though, complete with silver badge. From any distance you couldn’t see that the badge said “Secretary.”

    I used to like to use the crosswalk to go to the grocery store on the far side of that intersection. I almost never had any close calls with drivers running red lights. They seemed to see that uniform with its badge from a far greater distance than they could see traffic lights, and they almost — almost — always squealed to a stop during yellow lights.

    And I always wear a skirt and hose when I go anywhere where real adults are doing real adult activity. You get far better treatment in offices, courthouses, archives, utility companies, hospitals, police departments, furniture stores and pressrooms when you’re dressed as an adult instead of wearing the stuff you wore in college. You guys who usually wear shorts and flip-flops everywhere should try long pants and a button-down shirt once in a while, even if for laughs.)

  8. I have a pair of light blue scrubs (pants). I wear them often in lieu of sweats or pajamas with a big sweatshirt. I apparently leave the house in this get-up quite often, because I am often startled by the sudden question “Where do you work?”. The first time this happened, I was in the Buckle, and I looked at the clerk who posed the question, and said “I work for Weight Watchers, why?” Duh. Now I’ve realized that they ask because, really, who in their right mind (or with any fashion sense) would wear scrubs to the mall unless they were on their way to or from work? Next time it happens, I think I’ll just say “I’m in a hurry, get me a dressing room- stat”. Better to let them think I’m a doctor than know I’m a slob.

  9. I have a pair of scrubs that I obtained in the same fashion. I call them my $800 pants. They are pale green and have orange drawstrings and the name of a hospital stamped across the back pocket. I’ve never worn them outside the house, but now I just might try it.

  10. When I travel for business, I can generally get away with business casual. But when I go to an airport, I always make sure that I wear a sport coat over my golf shirt, or if I’ve been wearing a buttondown, I put on a tie. It is amazing how much nicer the check-in agents treat you if you’re wearing either a tie or a sport coat.

    The same thing goes for academic department secretaries. They’re used to seeing slackers all day long, so if you’ve got a tie on, you can get almost whatever you want. That only increases if you have to talk to a dean.

  11. I guess “John T. Molloy’s DRESS FOR SUCCESS” (copywrite 1975), is still the Bible for this. He covers everything, from the kind of pen you use, to if your dress shirt has a pocket, to how many keys are on your key ring. (0 if you are a CEO, 30 If you are a janitor). A great book, if you find this stuff important, or just funny.

  12. Kevin Barney says:

    11 Bob, we were actually required to read Dress for Success on our mission. They had copies in the mission office they would sell to the greenies as they came in from SLC.

  13. I have two pair of scrubs: a bright pink pair that I use to lounge/sleep in and the color guarantees my teenage sons won’t steal them, and an all white pair I use for my temple pants – those babies got some room in them and will probably work until I die. The white ones replaced the white uniform pants I had leftover from my slaughterhouse days; but they sure would good conversation starters.

    #11 & 12: My mission pres was comps with Hyrum Smith on his mission – we all had to get Franklin planners.

  14. John Mansfield says:

    Dress can be a helpful visual cue to let others know that we are there to serve them. (“Uses of Looking the Part“)

  15. As an attorney who works at home, I can tell you I absolutely relish putting the full tailored suit on. I look for excuses to get dressed up.

    And yeah, it makes a big difference. Walk into a restaurant wearing a full suit sometime and watch the change in service.

  16. Of course the standard Mormon khaki dockers and baggy white shirt with tie hanging out the back of your collar simply says “I don’t know how to dress myself” and “somebody please steal my lunch money.”

  17. You guys who usually wear shorts and flip-flops everywhere should try long pants and a button-down shirt once in a while, even if for laughs.)

    It definitely works better at Church.

  18. Wearing some variation on an Islamic headscarf always results in significantly different treatment for me, no matter what country I’ve tried it in.

  19. My uncle is a nurse and travels in scrubs simply because they are comfortable. Well, at least that’s the reason he did it the first time. but then they bumped him to first class and called him doctor and treated him differently. So now he does it for the perks. He gets put in first class every time.

  20. So… if I start wearing a pair of light blue scrubs to the grocery store I can be comfortable and people will assume I’m tired because I’m a doctor coming off a long shift instead of because I’m a worn out Mom?! Sweet!

  21. As someone who worked in Destin, Florida (a favorite retreat of the well-incomed), I can tell you that the reactions are different when a person actually works with the rich & famous. Most of the well-to-do men I met were dressed in high-quality business casual pants or shorts, not suits or ties. The women usually dressed in high-quality casual dresses or slacks. Suits overdo it and make you look like you’re trying too hard.

    And I’ve worn scrubs tons of times in public and never earned a second look, so it must be the setting.

  22. Mormonmom,
    No. They’ll assume your a nurse, or a medical assistant. The world is sexist. Sorry. (maybe if you sport a stethoscope–but who wears one of those grocery shopping?)

  23. um, You are

  24. John Mansfield says:

    So, does the scrub thing ever take a turn sort of like William Holden in The Bridge on the River Kwai?

  25. When I was a student nurse (age 25), we had to wear labcoats as part of our uniform and we were always mistaken for doctors. We’d be standing there shadowing our assigned RN’s and the patients would invariably turn to us and ignore their real nurses. The funniest thing was, whenever I went in to do a “procedure” or even to empty someone’s bedpan, they would always always say, “You look way too young to be a nurse. What are you, 17?” So apparently, it’s okay to look like a teenager if you are a doctor, but nurses need to be at least 30.

    P.S. You need to be careful wearing scrubs in public. People come up to you and show you gross things and tell you all about very private issues. I was at McDonalds with my kids for dinner once before a shift and a completely random lady came up to me and started describing her symptoms and asked me to diagnose her. Even when I told her I had no idea and she needed to go to her doctor, she wouldn’t leave me alone. And people at church are bad too. “My doctor told me I have diabetes. What do you think?” I think they forgot to give me my psychic powers when they gave me my license. =]

  26. So apparently, it’s okay to look like a teenager if you are a doctor, but nurses need to be at least 30.

    Doogie Howser.

  27. #15: Seth: I spent years going to Settlement Conferences (MSCs, about 1500), and was always as the “Adjuster”, underdressed (sportcoat not suit). So I would always start by sitting back on the Judge’s sofa, and let the “Suits” take the chairs in front of the Judge. The Judges over time caught on, and would say: “He always starts there and makes us say he is the ‘most important’ in the room because he has all the money.”

  28. #12: Kevin: Amazon has the “new-updated version on sale. (I am not saying you need to buy it).

  29. Regarding the formal: Could you call that a Hermione moment? ;)

  30. I’ve found that attorneys with higher-end clientele tend to be more informal.

    My clients however are just average Americans, and they tend to appreciate their lawyer looking like one.

  31. jjohnsen says:

    “hey have the words “University of Utah Medical School” stamped across the left back pocket. Or is it the right? (My husband could probably tell you.)”

    Hehehe. Every pair of my wife’s scrubs has words printed on the breast picket or the back pants pocket.

    My wife has a larger pair of scrubs that she wore when she was pregnant, I’ll occasionally throw them on to go to the store, they’re so comfortable.

  32. I second what madhousewife said about the red hair. When my hair is red, I get all sorts of attention. When it’s brown, I’m practically invisible.

    On my mission, we had a rule that whenever we were out in public (with the exception of sports and some service projects), we had to be in our missionary attire, even on p-day. Whenever my companion and I would go into Wal-Mart to do our shopping, people would constantly ask us where stuff was because they thought we worked there.

  33. Keri-

    That would happen to me, too, when I would stop somewhere after work (sans scrubs) with my forgotten name-tag still on. A woman at CVS came up and asked me where the goldfish crackers were. I told her I had no idea–and to check the other aisle over. SHe gave me a dirty look, and huffed away, saying to her husband, “Well, SHE wasn’t very helpful.” I was completely perplexed, until it dawned on me that I was still wearing my nametag.

    And yes, that same happened at a Walmart, too. Aren’t Walmart workers supposed to wear a bright blue gofl shirt with a happy face on it, or something?

  34. FHL-

    Yes, a very Hermione moment. For a few weeks after that, that particular guy (who never, ever gave me the time of day before that) would say stuff like, “Hey, have you seen this woman in a formal dress? Y ou’d be amazed at what her regular clothes are hiding.”

    Not sure if it’s exactly what I wanted to hear, but, you know, whatever.

  35. Silver rain –

    Your comment as to the well to do is spot on. Especially in a vacation/retirement place like Florida. Most of the West coast is the same. You can tell the well to do by the high quality shoes and watch. Also, the fit of the clothes and the care given to grooming.

    Suits are for work. And if you have to work….

    Bob – As one who sits in those front chairs – they say you pay for the privilege (or your employer does).

  36. When I go to the grocery store, I slum. Shorts, tee shirt, sandals, no socks, no watch, ball cap.

    At some point, in some places, I don’t care what people think of my dress.

    Even if I run into the bishop in the checkout line (and he’s wearing jeans and a tee shirt…)

  37. I love this post. That is all.

  38. #35:”…you pay for the privilege ..”. I fully agree with you. I had not paid the price the Judge or the Trial Attorney had to be there. That’s why I waited to be invited to sit in a chair by them. But in keeping with the post: the Judge had the power of his Robe, the Trial attorney had his pinstripe suit. All I had was a $49 sportcoat with $300,000 in the pocket.

  39. If its anything like the rooms I have been in – that $49 sportcoat was worth more than all. It says – I don’t have to impress you…

  40. Peter LLC says:

    36:no watch

    You do like to let it all hang out!

    Anyroad, I agree our dress broadcasts something into the ether, but I am not confident in my fellow earthlings’ ability to decode exactly what.

    For example, the last time someone commented on my appearance, it was to hassle me for being a Jehovah’s Witness. And the last time I consciously dressed up for travel I was fined for tax evasion. Somebody wasn’t picking up what I was putting down.

  41. As the son of a nurse and the former husband of another one, I think this is a hilarious story. The canonical (so to speak) joke among nurses is, of course, of someone who dies, goes to Heaven, and keeps seeing this distinguished man with white hair and a beard walking around in a white coat, scrubs and with a stethoscope. The new arrival finally takes someone aside and asks who that is. The answer, with a smile, is: “Oh, that’s God. Sometimes He thinks He’s a doctor.”

    I’m sending this link to my mom and my former wife, who both will get a big kick out of it. ..bruce..

  42. Great post, Heather! Thanks for sending it to me, Bruce! : )

  43. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 19
    “He gets put in first class every time.”
    Yeah, sure, and so do I.
    Y’all are over-estimating the social status of the MD in 2009, imo.

    Great post, though. Who knew that green-water, panhandle Destin was the new East Hampton??

  44. My husband always gets moved to first class when he is wearing one of his military uniforms. But he refuses to wear it when we go on a trip together because it isn’t “official business.” I’m tempted to wear a uniform myself, but I think I might go to federal prison for it. Is it still impersonating an officer if you are an officer’s wife?

  45. As a lifelong blond, I found that people took me more seriously after dying my hair a medium brown in college. Especially the professors.

  46. I’ve learned that I should always wear a suit and tie when I go to the DMV.

    I picked up a scrub top from Johns Hopkins while being a missionary in inner-city Baltimore. It’s great fun to wear because even the medical types nearly salute. My wife looks dang good in it too.

    But, the ultimate prize was a t-shirt from the Baltimore Police Department. I bet I could slap little old ladies, drive the wrong way down the interstate, and moon the President, and all I’d get would be “Have a nice day, sir.” Seriously. It’s like some sort of real-life +35 charisma armor when dealing with authority types.

  47. om-nom-nom says:

    I wore a suit to court, and was asked by multiple people in the room if I was a lawyer. I wore a suit while working at a hospital, and was assumed to be a doctor by several of the RESIDENTS. Since when does a doc in the ER wear a suit?

  48. om-nom-nom says:

    And #2, I’m a HUGE redhead fan. I’d be one of those guys.

  49. om-nom-nom says:

    and to everyone else, now that i’ve spent the next 20 minutes reading all the other comments:

    #10 I have yet to fulfill my desire to wear little more than a bathrobe and slippers (with a pair of shorts on for insurance to the airport

    #15 i own a tux for the same reason. I picked it up on a whim while at a thrift store with the thought that any occasion to which a man wears a suit is a good thing (prom, wedding, I figure there are enough businessmen in suits, but #19 sounds good too. 18 just sounds freakin’ hilarious. Especially since some airports would feel the need to bend over backwards and prove they’re not being “racist”

    #17 I’m from Independence, Missouri (i know) where there’s a pretty large number of Polynesians. It’s always fun seeing the occasional white shirt and formal lava-lava.

    #32 people would do that when i went to the mall, even the more expensive stores. it made me feel like i did a good job getting dressed all by myself that day