‘Just because I’m colourful doesn’t mean I’m not competent’

Evelyn Lewin

28/11/2019 12:02:35 PM

Should doctors look a certain way? Dr Sarah Gray believes people’s attitudes towards her extensive body art are changing.

Dr Gray at work
Intern Dr Sarah Gray is hoping to shatter the stigma around heavily tattooed people.

There was a time when doctors were expected to wear white coats and have a certain ‘look’.
Dr Sarah Gray told newsGP she is relieved those days are behind us.
The Adelaide intern is heavily tattooed, sports coloured hair and has multiple facial piercings.
‘I have definitely seen the pendulum shift in the views of everybody in the health industry over the last few years or so,’ she said.
‘I think a lot of the older generation of patients still expect you to look more like an old-school medical professional in their eyes, but it’s definitely changing.’
As doctors’ appearances have become less stringent, they have in turn become more relatable, Dr Gray said. She believes this has had a positive impact on the doctor–patient relationship.
‘With [doctors’ appearances] being a bit more relaxed, patients are more likely to be open and honest with them and talk to them a bit more about how they’re feeling,’ she said.
Not only does Dr Gray say her body art makes her more relatable to patients, but it is a talking point.
‘A lot of the times it will be, “Oh wow, you’re really colourful”,’ she said.
‘Or they’ll compliment me on my hair, or my eyebrows, or my tattoos.
‘A lot of the younger patients as well tend to talk about it, especially if they’ve got tattoos themselves. They often want to talk about body art, which I’m more than happy to talk about.’
Dr Gray has never had anyone comment negatively on how she looks, or had patients refuse treatment because of her appearance.
‘I’ve never really had anything brought up in a negative light – not to my face, anyway,’ she said.
‘I’m sure there are people that don’t like the way that I look because I’m not as conservative in appearance as some people think a doctor should look like.’
Dr Gray will not let such attitudes affect her. Nor will she let them influence her future plans for her body art.
She cannot put a number on how many tattoos she currently has, saying it is now more of a ‘cohesive collection’. She instead prefers to measure it in terms of the number of hours she has spent being tattooed, which currently stands at around the ‘350–400 hours’ mark.
And she is not finished.
‘I do want to complete a bodysuit and I’m on the way to doing so,’ she said.
‘So, basically covering the entirety of my body [with tattoos], excluding my face.’

Dr Gray is in the last rotation of her internship. She plans to undertake a surgical residency next year, with the long-term goal of becoming an orthopaedic surgeon.

Dr Gray’s love of body art started when she got her first tattoo eight years ago.
Soon after, she began ‘collecting’ different body art from tattooists she admired.
‘I just found it was a good way to show your creative self-expression through wearing your selection on your skin, instead of hanging it on your walls at home,’ she said.
Dr Gray met her husband through the body art industry, and the pair now own their own tattoo studio.
While she acknowledges she is likely one of the most heavily inked doctors, Dr Gray says many of the clients at her studio are also in the field.
‘We’ve got quite a lot of people that are medical professionals, that you might not traditionally think collect body art but do, so it’s definitely a lot bigger than people may think,’ she said.
Dr Gray laments the fact there is still a stigma surrounding people with tattoos.
‘So many people get stigmatised for being heavily tattooed and as being a “bad person”,’ she said.
But, she is keen to note, having tattoos is not a reflection of your values.
While she wants to shatter that image associated with having body art, Dr Gray says her main message is that a doctor’s appearance should have no bearing on their work.
‘I just think people focus on appearance too much and it shouldn’t really make a difference to what you can do in your life,’ she said.
‘I don’t think your appearance should be a hurdle.
‘If you work hard, and you want something bad enough, you should be able to achieve that, and I don’t think that just because you look differently that should get in the way.’
For Dr Gray, who is in the last rotation of her internship, those plans include doing a surgical residency next year, with a long-term goal of becoming an orthopaedic surgeon.
Her message for other doctors regarding appearance is simple.
‘You don’t have to be muted in appearance or fly under the radar to fit a certain preconceived mould,’ she said.
‘I am really passionate about wanting people to realise that just because I’m colourful doesn’t mean I’m not competent.’

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Dr Horst Paul Herb   28/11/2019 3:42:16 PM

The piercings might be a problem though in orthopaedics (or any other discipline with high infection risk)

Dr Farid Zaer   29/11/2019 8:10:36 AM

Piercings: site of infection, scarring, keloids, disfigurement are all negative outcomes.
Colouring:carcinogenic potential, autoimmune potential, loss of colour and repeat tattooing, ageing of skin with original tattoos being disfigured (ugly).
Body: maintain body tone life long, and especially post-childbirth for women to avoid sagging tattoos, men avoid booze and beer big gut "balloon tattoos"

Dr Alan Robert McLean   29/11/2019 9:22:35 AM

I applaud Dr Gray's courage and creativity. After wearing short trousers for 20 years in General Practice I was surprised to find that I was not allowed to wear shorts when I went back to the public system at RAH [2010]. I believe that Doctors should not be afraid to show a little personality in the way they look and dress. Congratulations Dr Gray, keep it up.

Dr Margaret Diana Khyentse   29/11/2019 11:11:09 AM

I don't like the look of tattoos on anyone, so I would not find it relatable. This has nothing to do with being a good v. bad person or competent v. incompetent doctor.

Dr Peter James Strickland   29/11/2019 12:35:41 PM

The look of extensive tattoos and piercing tends to give the impression of "something to hide", and generally denigrates the professionalism of a person with the people they are dealing with, and to children could be frightening as a doctor. Colouring "up' with temporary tattoos and nose inserts is great to go to the fancy=dress occasion, but not as a frontline person dealing with sick or mentally ill patients, and especially as a female doctor. Such tattoos in females are associated with lack of respect for their natural skin beauty and cleanliness (in my opinion), and does not add to increasing anything, and especially professionalism and respect for the people they work with, and what a problem for diagnosis for the dermatologist if she gets skin problems (eg SLE)!

Dr Philip Ian Dawson   29/11/2019 1:54:21 PM

Neither do I like tattoos. Not just because they deface a healthy body and carry the suggestion there is something wrong with those who refuse to do this, not only because of the fact that a generation ago ( when I was a child) and more recently heavily tattooed persons were thought to be associated with bikies, alcoholics, drug dealers, and violence ( and why would anyone not involved in those wish to adorn themselves in the same manner?), but mainly because I see it as another example of the "ME" generation saying "Look at Me". in other words NARCISSISM, rather than modesty. I think Doctors of all people should set a good example and not be involved in promoting Narcissism.

Dr David Han-Kwang Pan   29/11/2019 2:34:22 PM

We all have our own style and taste and probably attract a certain type of patient.
Sarah has developed her own niche as we all should.
"-isms" like racism and sexism are wrong because they inaccurately attribute a characteristic to all members of an identity group. To be unable to differentiate this doctor from a member of an Outlaw Motor Cycle Gang says more about that person than her. I dare say that any colleague or patient who discriminated against her on the basis of her tattoos is probably no loss to her.

Dr Marko Mandic   29/11/2019 2:59:11 PM

1 - Facial piercings are not an infection risk unless you have a very atypical surgical style.
2 - The suggestion that tattoos and piercings "give the impression of something to hide" is an outdated and inaccurate judgement that we should be condemning, not promoting.
3 - To conflate self-expression with narcissism is both insulting and sad.

I personally welcome the fact that people are starting to recognise that you don't need to fit a very specific cultural mould in order to provide good medical care.

Dr Rolf Tsz Kit Tsui   29/11/2019 3:14:53 PM

Nice one Sarah. It's always very pleasing to see anyone being confident about what they believe in - be it within or out of themselves.
Formality has been shunned for a reason in the modern world, they create an artificial atmosphere and prevents the genuine dialogue a person can have with another.

I agree with my learned colleague above who mentioned that those who cannot or will not tell the difference between a very talented young lady who had completed medical school and on the verge of accomplishing her internship to an outlawed bikie or any other pre-conceived ilogic says a lot about themselves.

Good luck on your future Sarah!

Dr Michael Wong   29/11/2019 5:50:47 PM

Sarah, I think the important issue is that you feel you can be yourself. My experience is that being relatable to your patients as a fellow human being is helpful for both me and my patients. Like having something about you to talk about which is personal without being too personal. I love the way you describe the interaction you have with your patients. I wish you the best if success for your career and hope you are assessed on merit and not appearance.

Peter, do you also consider that such tattoos in males are associated with lack of respect for their natural skin beauty and cleanliness?

Phillip, as you say, it was a generation ago that some tattoos were associated with outlaw motorcycle gangs.

I think doctors, like other people, should set an example of acceptance and inclusion.

Btw I don't have any tattoos, not that it should make any difference to what I have said.

Dr Richard Peter Shorrock-Browne   29/11/2019 6:39:31 PM

As a now slightly rotund middle aged GP, looking at my age matched somewhat "well rounded" peers with comb-overs, and teeth that are getting a little long - I do wonder just what does actually produce confidence in our clients?
Personally I have always been too scared to get inked (pain averse), but do wear bright socks and ties (obviously with a nicely ironed crisp white shirt!).
I suspect Dr Gray, may well be more relatable to a larger group of patients than we care to admit, and more likely to garner the trust of 36% of people between the age of 18 and 29 (US figures) and 35% of those between 30 and 39 years (UK figures) who have tattoos, than a middle aged man with silly socks. Children under 18 have lived in a world where tattoos are commonplace on people who are not at all scary, and are less likely to be affronted than the "oldies"
Good on her I say. She is batting up hill and breaking down barriers.
If she is competent, which she obviously is, she deserves to do well.

Dr David James Maconochie   29/11/2019 9:20:12 PM

Oh my!

While your appearance is striking and attractive, to me it does not say "competent, knowledgeable doctor, with intellectual interests". It does however say very loudly "look at me!".

I expect you are competent and knowledgeable, but do you really want to struggle that hard?

Male GP   29/11/2019 10:13:34 PM

A female doctor is more likely to get away with having a body suit of tattoos. A girl with tattoos will never look "scary." It may raise a few eyebrows from conservative establishment but otherwise ok. It will definitely help her to relate to certain patients who may have not have been able to relate to other doctors in the past. A male doctor with a body suit of tattoos will DEFINITELY look scary to many patients. A male doctor like myself examining a female patient or a child has to be mindful of not appearing threatening. This is just reality. I graduated medical school in the last decade. There were 50 men in my year. NONE of them had a tattoo. Not a single one. May of the girls had some tattoos though.

Dr Neville Steer   29/11/2019 10:49:59 PM

It is great to hear your story Dr Gray. The important issue you address is being yourself and resisting the pressure to conform. What patients value is competence and genuine caring.

Dr Kate Elizabeth Schilling   30/11/2019 7:53:09 AM

Are we talking about professional standards here?
“The important issue is that I think I can be myself?
It's always very pleasing to see anyone being confident about what they believe in - be it within or out of themselves.??
starting to recognise that you don't need to fit a very specific cultural mould in order to provide good medical care.??
We all have our own style and taste and probably attract a certain type of patient.
Sarah has developed her own niche as we all should.
"-isms" like racism and sexism are wrong because they inaccurately attribute a characteristic to all members of an identity group.??
I applaud Dr Gray's courage and creativity?”
To all those who made the above comments, what would you say if , on the basis of your encouragement, decided to go to work on Monday in topless, wearing nothing but a grass skirt???
It looks to me like standards are slipping and professionals loosing the ability to discriminate between what is appropriate and what is not. Very alarming.

Dr Myfanwy Gwynneth Sahade   30/11/2019 12:41:42 PM

You don' t put a bumper sticker on a Bentley: ' Katy Perry'. I quote this to my 3 teenaged kids frequently (and hope they listen!)Trends change. What makes you look great and 'cool' in your 20s frequently is not so in 1-2 decades time. OK, all that aside... Good on you Sarah for having the strength of character to do what you believe in .

Dr David Han-Kwang Pan   1/12/2019 12:59:55 AM

"To all those who made the above comments, what would you say if , on the basis of your encouragement, decided to go to work on Monday in topless, wearing nothing but a grass skirt???To all those who made the above comments, what would you say if , on the basis of your encouragement, decided to go to work on Monday in topless, wearing nothing but a grass skirt???"

If I did that, there would be waves of nausea amongst patients and staff and desperate pleas that I stop bending over. Someone might chase me with a whipper snipper.
If you did that, as sexist as it seems, you would probably be charged with indecent exposure..

Dr Malcolm Robert Tilsley   1/12/2019 6:37:43 PM

I can understand the "art thing" - but I do not welcome another area in which I ill require mandatory cultural awareness training in the future.What will happen to all these people when the fashion changes?

Dr William Lancashire   7/12/2019 6:19:19 AM

Actually doctor it is not about you it is about the patients a large proportion of which are elderly, frightened and confused.

Dr Iain James Haig Anderson   7/12/2019 7:29:44 AM

I think it is fascinating to read the polemic expressed on this topic. Why should a male doctor with tattoos be scary and a female not? Why should tattoos be in any way an indicator of competence? It puts me very much in mind of the sorts of comments that I hear about gay colleagues and which are the reason for lowest common denominator cultural awareness training. All I can say is if we treat our patients with respect and professionalism, we can expect similar respect and trust from them. I have had a tattoo for 30 years and never once had my professional capacity questioned. It is time for the bigots to recognize change I culture and values in our communities and our colleagues. You do you Sarah.

Dr Cho Oo Maung   7/12/2019 9:02:39 AM

Over tattooing and body piercing is a signs of something wrong in mind and personality.
I might decline to support the idea of having Tattooing and Body piercing on a doctor. A doctor supposes to be a role model to public for preventive health. I don't like to see a doctor smoking in front of the public and his patients, so do, tattooing and body piercing which are part of risk factors for assessment of Blood born virus infection such as HIV, Hep B , Hep C as we all know.

Dr Cho Oo Maung   7/12/2019 9:05:11 AM

Beautiful, young doctor - try not to destroy your skin and body with acquired tattoos and body piercing. We practice to love the nature and accept what the nature gives.

Dr Alfredo Osmar Aiello   7/12/2019 9:21:15 AM

Tatoos no problems.
And am sure you are competent as an "intern".
I have a big nose.
Who cares.
Why not focus on medicine and patients.

Dr Peter Robert Bradley   7/12/2019 11:56:13 AM

Personally, I'm just intrigued as to how many were prompted to post on this item, when the forums, (ok, fora for the pedant), on this website are, by and large, like dead zones.

For me, my only concern re tattoos have only ever been a case, not of "why would you do that?", but more a case of the what if, when someone decides they no longer want them, and they are so difficult to remove without disfigurement from that procedure.

Dr Roger John William Parrish   14/12/2019 9:06:33 AM

When I was a school boy in England 70 years ago, I remember paying 3 pence to go and see the tattooed lady when the fair came around each year. I have disliked tattoos ever since especially those displayed by Sarah in such profusion but I acknowledge the right of everyone to do what they want in this respect. At the same time it upsets me to see a woman with naturally beautiful skin to tattoo themselves in this way and have no concern as to their appearance in 40 years time. My 3 children are all aware of this dislike of mine but this has not inhibited them from getting tattoos themselves but they are all small and discreet and what I would describe as "personal".

Dr James McLeod   14/12/2019 10:52:25 AM

Good to see the RACGP tackling the big issues confronting Australia's health system

Dr Mark Richard James Holloway   21/12/2019 4:54:54 PM

Sarah please be who you are!
I wish I had your courage and individuality.

As an old geriatrician I launched into the era of scrubs for my ward rounds.
Few of my fellow consultants do except those in the ER and surgical specialties.
Bare to the elbows is the cry!
I have no interesting tattoos to admire much to my chagrin!

However I found I lacked the pockets to secrete my modern accoutrements so I ordered a short sleeved white coat with the necessary carefully crafted pockets from the US, where they still make and wear them!

I was actually the first one in my year to discard the white coat rejecting its cloaked authority!

I wore my crisp white coat over my sharp blue scrubs but was sadly assailed by such negativity from my medical colleagues (not my patients). I was surprised at the sustained hostility to what was a proud symbol of our profession.

I was too ashamed and embarrassed to persist and consigned them to the back of my wardrobe, alas!

Dr Amanda Badam   21/12/2019 5:43:33 PM

Sarah - I congratulate you.
Well done for expressing yourself ,breaking stereotypical barriers and loving what you do.
I wish you a successful year of internship and I am sure you will be a very competent Orthopaedic female surgeon ! Pursue your passion, stay focused and keep your charm. Your patients will cherish you for who you are.