As It Happens

Why doctors and med students are posting bikini pics online

When Dr. Yalda Safai was in med school, she faced a lot of backlash over her decision to compete in beauty pageants in her free time.

#MedBikini trend emerges in response to study about young surgeons' 'unprofessional' online behaviour

Dr. Yalda Safai is a New York City psychiatrist and former beauty pageant competitor who has lent her voice to the #MedBikini movement in response to a now-retracted study about 'unprofessional' social media behaviour among doctors. (Submitted by Yalda Safai)

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When Dr. Yalda Safai was in med school, she faced a lot of backlash over her decision to compete in beauty pageants in her free time.

That's why she has joined the hundreds of doctors, researchers and med students — most of them women — posting photos of themselves in swimwear in defiance of a now-retracted study suggesting such behaviour is "unprofessional."

"A big portion of my life involved being in a bikini on stage, taking pictures in a bikini. And I remember back then, I would get a lot of comments from coworkers, from family members, from students in my class, that these pictures are undermining our profession," Safai, a New York City psychiatrist, told As It Happens guest host Susan Bonner. 

"I was always wondering, what does one have to do with another? This is a hobby I have that I very much enjoy outside of school, outside of work. Why is it that I'm getting criticized for not being professional when it really has nothing to do with my intellectual ability and my capabilities to be a good doctor?"


The #MedBikini phenomenon began when the Journal of Vascular Surgery published a study — which has since been retracted — titled "Prevalence of unprofessional social media content among young vascular surgeons."

The study's three authors, all men, created fake social media profiles and followed 480 vascular surgeons who graduated between 2016 and 2018, monitoring their online activity for "clearly unprofessional conduct" and "potentially unprofessional conduct."

"Clearly unprofessional conduct" was defined as violating health legislation, breaking the law, appearing intoxicated, using drugs or making offensive or profane comments about patients and colleagues.

"Potentially unprofessional conduct" included holding or drinking booze, commenting on controversial topics and sporting "inappropriate attire," which was defined as "pictures in underwear, provocative Halloween costumes, and provocative posing in bikinis/swimwear."

"Let's not kid ourselves. When they were talking about pictures in swimwear and bikinis, they were clearly talking about women," Safai said. 

"They didn't have to spell it out. We all know they were talking about women. Nobody will ever criticize a male in his trunks on the beach in a photo."


The hashtag has provided a springboard for doctors to talk about sexism in medicine, and the various ways in women are held to different standards.

"I will not wear my white coat and scrubs to Hawaii. This does not make me unprofessional or less intelligent or compassionate compared to my male colleagues," one med student wrote.

"Trans #MedBikini #gaymedtwitter Because enjoying the water does not make me 'unprofessional.'  Because my identity is not 'unprofessional,'" wrote Dr. E. Concors of Chicago, alongside a pride flag emoji. "Because #MedBikini is for ALL bodies."


The journal's editors have since issued a retraction and a public apology for the study.

"The review process failed to identify the errors in the design of the study with regards to conscious and unconscious bias," the editors wrote.

They also noted problems with the study's methodology — namely that the authors did not seek permission from the Association of Program Directors in Vascular Surgery to use their database of graduates in order to compile their social media list.

"These doctors didn't know they were part of a study," Safai said. "It violates the first principle of research, and that's called informed consent."

Two of the study's authors, Thomas Cheng and Jeffrey Siracuse, also issued apologies on Twitter. Both accounts have since been deactivated.


The study found 26 per cent of the surgeons monitored had posted clearly or potentially inappropriate conduct.

"Young surgeons should be aware of the permanent public exposure of unprofessional content that can be accessed by peers, patients, and current/future employers," the authors said. 


But Safai said the problem is that the male co-authors got to decide what is and isn't appropriate.

"If they had interviewed patients and heard directly from the mouths of patients that if they see their doctor in a bikini, it might have a negative impact on their decision to follow up with that doctor, that's another thing," she said. "But this was just their own opinion."


In her own experience as a psychiatrist, Safai says her pageant pictures haven't been an issue for patients. 

"Every single comment I've gotten from patients was positive," she said.

"So, no, I don't believe that wearing a bikini and taking a picture of it will negatively impact my patients' perception of me, because that's not what I've experienced."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Dr. Yalda Safai produced by Jeanne Armstrong.

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