By: Shannon Small
“Mommy, so does Barbie have a vagina now?”
My 3.5-year-old daughter has been excited to see the Barbie movie since we saw the first preview last summer. So when it came out, we both dressed in our Barbie best and went to see what I can only describe as a tragically accurate depiction of the life of women in this country both as my inner child dreamt of, and as my 42 year old grown self now inhabits. My daughter saw everything I could have wished for- Barbies as scientists, doctors, writers, Supreme Court Justices, and her personal favorite, (especially as a little brown skinned girl), President.
She gasped in righteous indignation as Ken took over Barbie’s dream house “that is BARBIE’S house- he needs to LEAVE Mommy!”, and applauded when Barbie rebuked an advance from Ken “no one should touch you without permission!”. Her excitement at the end, as I told her that yes, Barbie was choosing to become human, and yes, she now had a vagina “Barbie is like ME Mommy!” brought tears to my eyes, if only because just like Barbie, her child-like innocence as to who she can be and what she can do is still limitless.
And yet, just as America Ferrera’s character Gloria, I fear for the world in which my beautiful baby girl is growing up. She lives in a society where the patriarchy isn’t as easily overthrown as in the Barbie movie, where intelligent, competent women wake up to the fact that while they have earned their careers and their rightful places as leaders in their society, in reality they may not even have control over their own bodies.
As a trauma/critical care surgeon in my first few years of practice, I have been the only female surgeon, then the only pregnant surgeon, and subsequently the only breastfeeding surgeon. I have been told to smile more, and not to stand with my hands on my hips in the trauma bay so as not to appear too “aggressive”. I have had to apologize for the perception that I was too slow in running to a code when I was 7 months pregnant and having premature labor contractions. I have been reported to HR for having to utilize a breast pump in a mandatory staff meeting, when there were no accommodations made as I was the first surgeon to require breastfeeding accommodations. I have watched my peers get passed over for promotions, receive less pay than their male counterparts, and have no support for academic advancement.
As Barbie says: “The real world is forever and irrevocably messed up.”
Being a mentor now to multiple female residents and medical students, I am often asked how to navigate a career in academic surgery with starting a family. I am open and honest that I still haven’t figured that out. There are days when I feel like a total failure as a mother, when my two young children sob because they only see me on a computer screen and they don’t want Mommy to “help the sick people” because it takes me away from them. There are days when I feel like I have sacrificed my opportunity to improve my surgical skills and experience to make it home in time to get my kids to bed and kiss them good night. That still, six years into practice, rare are the days that I feel like I am succeeding at all my roles as a wife, mother, surgeon, mentor, researcher, leader. There are an increasing number of days when I feel like I have succeeded at at least one. For now, that is enough.
Being a woman in a male dominated field is described in the movie perfectly: “It is literally impossible to be a woman. . . Like we always have to be extraordinary, but somehow we’re always doing it wrong. . . You have to be a boss, but you can’t be mean. . . You have to answer for men’s bad behavior, which is insane, but if you point that out, you’re accused of complaining. . . But never forget that the system is rigged. You have to never get old, never be rude, never show off, never be selfish, never fall down, never fail, never show fear, never get out of line.” Navigating this tightrope of expectations has been fraught with challenges in my initial years as a surgeon, and I have fallen more times than I care to count.
Most importantly, I have also had help to stand back up. It is critical that we women, mothers, and surgeons are there to mentor and to help future generations, both women and men, to create the type of society where we support each other. A society where we both appreciate the work our men colleagues perform, while also lauding the work done by women, which is just as worthy of recognition. We must celebrate each other as women, and help ourselves and others obtain their version of work/life balance. We must recognize that our roles outside of the hospital are just as important as our roles inside, and that our life experiences only make us stronger. Being a mother doesn’t detract from being a great surgeon- I would argue it makes me a better one.
“Us mothers stand still so our daughters can look back to see how far they’ve come”. This was my favorite line from the movie. I can only hope that my smart, beautiful baby girl grows up in a world where she is valued, respected, and capable of achieving anything and I will work to create that world for her and for others.
So my takeaway from Barbie? Proudly strike a Superwoman pose, and continue on doing the best I can to show my daughter that just as in the movie, having a vagina is something to be celebrated.
Grew up in Tallahassee, Florida, attended college at Duke University, majoring in English with a double minor in chemistry and classical studies. Attended medical school at Wake Forest University School of Medicine. Completed general surgery residency at Virginia Commonwealth University, and fellowships in critical care at Wayne State University and in immunotherapy at the National Cancer Institute’ Surgery Branch under Dr. Steven A. Rosenberg. Recipient of multiple teaching and research awards, member of numerous surgical societies and committees, author on twenty peer viewed publications and one book chapter. Numerous oral and poster presentations at regional, national, and international meetings. Proud wife and mother to two young children, Jonah and Jocelyn.