My secret identity

Personal style and a physician? Oh yeah! We care about how we look. But not all of us. And it has no reflection on our job as a physician or our work as a human!

I belong to a fairly conservatively dressing family but I have broken a rule or two, much to the chagrin of my parents. They tried to instill modesty when it came to clothing but my stance has always been anything but.

Why so, you may ask! Because I think that my clothes make an impression when I’m meeting someone or even seeing someone I’ve met a thousand times. To me, if my clothes aren’t right, I won’t be able to have the confidence that I need. Somehow I have always valued clothing as something more than it signifies.

All my life I hated uniforms. It was a very restrictive idea to me. I believed uniforms were created to make women not show their creativity to their friends. My friends and I started our own rebellion against it. We would alter the length of the sleeves, the cut of the shirt and the styling of our sash according to the latest trends. In our minds this was our defiance to uniforms and this depicted our hatred towards this communal way of living.

Medical college is a very colorful place. Sure most people go there to become doctors. But most people also can’t help but be style icons there. Our passion for our personal dressing style became a distraction for many of us from our own medical school-related chaos. It was sometimes the only colorful thing in a life of illness, death, financial constraints, mortality.

Even when so deeply preoccupied by my own self I couldn’t help but notice some women who didn’t care about how they dressed. And it wasn’t due to financial constraints only. Some of them really truly didn’t care for the clothes they put on each morning. They appeared “ugly” to me. And I always felt bad for how little “groomed” they were. Why didn’t someone tell them to coordinate their clothes more carefully? Ugh! I didn’t care to make friends with them because frankly, how could I be friends with someone who was still wearing outdated clothing? Hanging out with her would be a reflection on me. And I couldn’t allow that. That wasn’t a cool thing to happen to me.

I graduated and went into a residency program in the USA. How I stressed over my interview clothing is a saga in its own self. I obsessed over it for weeks and finally settled on something that was approved by my husband, my in-laws and my own family overseas.

Residency was nothing like I had imagined. It was, however, everything I had feared. Long grueling hours, nonstop assessment of our work as residents, constant disruption of family life, my inability to spend enough time with my newborn, my angst at seeing my marriage becoming like a chore.

Of course with so much happening and my life occupied by a demanding residency and a new baby, my priorities changed subtly and subconsciously. My closet started to display clothes that I had shopped for at the beginning of my pregnancy. I was still wearing my pregnancy clothes. I had also cut my hair really short in an attempt to keep it manageable (successful attempt by the way). I had two pairs of shoes that I alternated with lighter and darker shades of pants. I didn’t wear make up to work throughout my residency and in my subsequent attending job. I identified a few online stores that catered to my bohemian whim of fashion. These stores became my life-savers. I had no time to spare, least of all on getting ready in the morning.

My mom came to visit when I was a chief resident. She looked at my closet incredulously and asked, rather abruptly.

Mama: Sonia! Are these your clothes?

Me: yes

Mama: they don’t seem to be your size. At least two or three sizes too big

Me: it’s okay, Mama. I feel comfortable in them.

Mama: really? I thought you felt comfortable in clothes that were drawn on your body (jokingly referring to my penchant for form-fitting clothes).

Me: (shrugging my shoulders): Clothes are clothes, Mom. I worry more about what Minha is going to wear. My fashion isn’t that important anymore.

Mama: (smiling in a mysterious way that only moms smile in when they see their kid achieve a developmental milestone): Can I say how proud I am of you?

Me: (smiling in return): I know it took a few years to get here.

I’m sure my mom thanked her Lord for this epiphany which came to me after burning a few thousand dollars of hers 😆

My distaste for uniforms took longer to see its error.

Most people know that my daughter has pretty significant autism. When we initially moved to Delaware she went to a private catholic school. She had to wear a uniform. I hated ironing it, washing it, putting it on her, and watching her struggle with the material. I argued with Adnan so many times how uniforms were just a sadistic attempt at suppressing style and panache.

I went to pick her up from school one day. As I stood outside her class, I couldn’t find her. I was starting to lose my composure when someone took my hand. It was Minha. She had blended in completely with the other girls by VIRTUE OF THE UNIFORM. All my life I have wanted my little girl to be just like other girls and this was that moment. I couldn’t tell her apart. People who have a differently developing child can likely get this. That was my moment of joy, pleasure, an out-of-body experience. The uniform and the ideology behind it made sense to me. While most people are trying to stand out, all I have always wanted is for my little girl to fit in.

I realized that the uniform isn’t restrictive. It’s actually liberating in so many ways. It lets people be people. It lets people focus on reading when they’re reading and playing when they’re playing. It’s a very safe outfit. It covers our body and has no particular date attached to it. It is really timeless. When someone’s wearing a uniform, we don’t judge them immediately when they enter a room. We analyze them based on how they talk, present ideas and connect with us.

So this is my message from my adult life. That the way I present myself is my way of presenting myself. There was nothing wrong in styling myself a certain way, wanting myself to look a certain way. It wasn’t a reflection on my intelligence, kindness, humanity, morality. What wasn’t right of me was to judge people on their choice of dressing. That wasn’t my prerogative. That was not my place. That’s what time and age have fixed for me.

I have time to spend on myself some days now. I dress up nicely, put make-up on, may be even try wearing a heel, walk with a little more swag than normal.

But it doesn’t change the way my patients see me ever. Whether I see my patients in my carefully-picked outfit or in something I threw together at the last minute, they just see me as Dr. Adnan. They may make a polite comment about how nice I look sometimes but they really don’t care. They just worry that I treat them right and talk to them and try to get their story. Like my kids! They don’t care what Mama is wearing. All they really want is that Mama gets their side of all the happenings and be there. Like my husband! Who doesn’t care what I look like at the end of the day as long as he and I watch a few minutes of TV together and eat together . Like my own Mama! Who always told me that my fancy clothes and impeccable style weren’t going to make me stand out in medical school. If I was going to make an impression amongst medical students, I’d have to have the brains.

My style sense is part of my secret identity now. It’s only for myself. My passion for fashion and trends is for me. It is something to indulge in with the understanding that not everyone has to share in it and not everything is determined by it. The clothes on my body are just that to other people…. clothes on my body.