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The Naked Truth about Nudity (PAP series 3/6)

“People are People” Part 3 of 6

There are people all over the country who get paid to let medical students examine their prostates, testicles, and pelvic areas. Eager young learners wait in short white coats to put their hands inside someone for the first time for the sole purpose of education. There are nervous coughs and sweaty palms under nitrile gloves. I have no idea how much those simulated patients get paid, but whatever it is, it’s not enough.

But then that desensitization thing I talked about in “The Truth about Calloused Care” happens. Naked bodies become like spreadsheets and the examination of “private parts,” just another part of the job. I have heard people speculating about whether or not their healthcare provider pictures them naked if they run into one another outside of the medical setting (if you attend the same church as the person who delivered your baby for example). The answer is no.

I have done only a handful of pelvic exams (out of thousands) that stand out in my memory. The first pregnant patient I examined with a history of female circumcision, for example. And it’s hard to forget the tragedy of a beautiful young woman with disfiguring cutaneous Crohn’s, or the grotesque sight of a paraplegic woman’s pelvis that was literally rotting. I remember the exam of a rape survivor with horrific bruising and tears. But all the others blend together.

Prime-time television is full of commercials with voice-over warnings to ‘seek medical attention for an erection lasting more than four hours.’ I see men with this problem in the ED. I usually inject some medicine into the affected area and voilá! Problem solved. Some men are happy to see it go up, these men are happy to see it go down. But of all of the men I have treated with this condition, I couldn’t pick a single one out of a crowd.

The longer you’re in medicine, the less and less likely you are to be surprised by anything. In my short career I have seen scrotums so swollen they’re almost transparent, and men so obese their penises are “buried.” I have seen disfiguring genital warts and cervixes that look like they are vomiting green goo thanks to gonorrhea. All of these people want the same thing: to be well.

It’s true that some naked bodies are more “decorated” than others. Ask anyone in healthcare about the interesting tattoos she/he has seen and you are bound to get a story. We see misspellings, and long lists of lovers with crossed out names. We see thighs and pubic bones embellished with elephant ears (men) and cat whiskers/ears (women). Lawnmowers at the upper edge of the escutcheon are more common than you’d think. And some people are either trying to be funny or don’t think very highly of the people they get naked with as arrows with “insert here” tags also seem to be popular.

The most memorable tattoo I have ever seen was a full letter addressed to the people present at the time of his death. I was one of the people that letter was addressed to. I stood at his bedside and turned his warm, bloodied hand from side to side so I could read the whole letter. It foretold some of the circumstances of his death and it was haunting – like hearing a voice from the afterlife.

Piercings are commonplace. The only ones that give pause are the ones that look like they would interfere with normal human activities or cause an undue amount of pain. (Of note, if you are ever in an accident, it will be someone’s job to remove ALL of your piercings before you go to the CT-scanner, so please make sure they are easily removable.)

Health care providers are taught to be observant. So we notice tattoos and piercings, chiseled abdomens and surgically enhanced breasts in an observational kind of way. But the truth is, most bodies are ‘soft.’ Most have hair and lumps and bruises. No one thinks anything of it.

I know a doctor who heard a familiar voice in a patient room. He poked his head in and was waved into the room by a physician friend. The friend said to the naked man trying to urinate, “Daddy, this is Dr. Soandso. He’s your neighbor. It’s okay [that you’re naked the first time you’re meeting your neighbor]; he’s a doctor.” 

It is the absolute truth that healthcare providers don’t think much of naked flesh and “private parts.” It’s just part of the job.

People are people – whether their bodies are plain or embellished, soft or sculpted – and it is a privilege to care for them.


This post is 5/6 in a series about some of the parts of medicine that aren’t suitable for dinner-party chatter. Every post ends with what a privilege it is to care for people – because it is. It is a privilege to care for people with a wide range of penchants, pasts, body types, abilities, injuries, and life expectancy. Thank you for reading. 


Cover photo: Flikr: Hotlanta Voyeur, cropped/made black&white/groin blurred, creative commons license.

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  1. Even though I already commented, I was thinking about this post, combined with your prisoner post. Have you ever been in a situation where you have seen a female prisoner deliver a baby, while handcuffed? I have heard about such things, and I think I want you to tell me this does not happen.

    • You know – I know I was on L&D a time or two when prisoners labored – but I was not directly involved in their care. It wasn’t a super common thing and I don’t know if they were shackled or not. Usually it’s a prison policy NOT a hospital policy and the guard has to ‘break the rules’

      • That would seem very difficult for an OBGYN to have to follow prison policy. Thank you…it is probably a very rare occupancy. I hope.

  2. sherlonya sherlonya

    I had the opposite experience of my doctor. I saw her out and about one day, and I saw her dancing. She danced her heart out. She danced with wild abandon. Those limbs were moving with gusto. All I could think was “that’s the same body that handles the speculum.”

  3. Well, thankfully, you became a doctor and I did not. This subject is so intriguing because, well, I think you have exposed some taboo’s.
    I actually had the most difficult time reading that those ads, “If you still have ONE after 4 hours…”
    I had no idea that really happened. And of course, my reaction is very immature and inappropriate…OMG!!!
    You really have broken some barriers here. I feel relieved when you let us know our doctors don’t really think about us when we see them in public. That was a relief..and I love how you explained that most naked bodies are like spreadsheets..just another day at the office…
    So, thank you, Dear Doctor Ott, for informing and educating us. And reminding me that ‘some’ of us have to grow up!

  4. MaryLove MaryLove

    Thanks Kristin, When I am with a woman during birth it is rare that she is wearing much or any clothes at the time of delivery. I often wonder if I walked in to see a patient in the clinic for a prenatal visit and she was sitting there nude if I would even actually notice!

  5. I’m more likely to remember the impact the patient had on me than what they looked like or how their body was adorned. In this day and age, we see everything, everywhere. Your writings are so insightful and this RN appreciates so much the time you take with your BUSY life to do this. I have forwarded on to many people your blog, including my daughter who will soon start her ARNP program. Hopefully, they are now subscribers. Blessings for all you do!

    • Wow! Mari – thank you so much! This means more to me than you know. Congrats to your daughter! What a lucky girl to have had you for a role model – and neat that you will share some of the same amazing/unique/incredible experiences our jobs enable us to live first hand. Hugs from Savannah!

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