Beware the Dignity Police
I am sweating as I grip my walker and lift my feet to propel myself down the long hall when one of the rehabilitation facility administrators rushes up. She’s trying to be discrete but her hurry and whisper-shouting instead attracts the attention of everyone nearby. She’s telling the physical therapist that my dignity is being violated and insists that we stop and get me a gown to wear.
My daily outfit at the rehab is a baggy t-shirt and large boxer shorts. These are the only garments that will fit over the large leg brace gripping my left knee after revision surgery. I’m a few weeks into my therapy and have a couple more weeks to go. No one has complained about my clothes, and frankly I could care less. I’m not here to be a fashion model. I’m here to recover and regain my leg strength following an infected knee removal and replacement.
As the administrator dresses down the poor, hard-working physical therapist for not clothing me properly, my impatience grows. I’m angry that she is treating me like I am not there and that I should not make my own clothing choices. I don’t think this is about protecting my dignity, since she won’t even address her comments to me directly. (My husband called later to try to figure out what the issue might of been, and pretty much got zero answers.)
Finally, I point out that no one has had any problem. I am covered adequately, more than those hospital gowns typically cover. But she insists and so I have to layer on a stupid, scratchy gown over my clothes. I do not feel any more dignified.
Now, several years later, I still don’t understand. Was I really improperly dressed for physical therapy? Was I harming myself or insulting the delicate eyes of other patients and staff?
Fundamentally, I think I don’t understand because since childhood I felt I was on display in a way. Doctors and nurses were always looking at my body and poking it or cutting it. I couldn’t hide! I was always in the limelight, with all my goodies hanging out. I was lucky to have a blanket covering me or to be asked permission before one thing or another was done to me. How could I know what dignity was in this context?
I learned to embrace the silly frailty of the human body. We all have one and there’s nothing unnatural about it. Some, like mine, are a bit more difficult or different. But we have to do the best we can with what we’ve got.
This means that when I’m working hard at my physical therapy, I’m going to wear comfortable clothes for the workout. I’m not going to wear a ballgown or worry about my appearance for others.
I’m not trying to be insensitive, just practical. I like the idea of dignity, I just don’t always think my concept aligns with what others’ expectations may be. My idea of dignity is doing my best to recover from surgery and keep as many of my abilities as possible intact. My idea of dignity is being treated respectfully, and not pulled aside in public for criticism about my attire.
It’s also about context. I’m not wearing my boxer shorts to the office. But I may wear them in the hospital or rehab facility because they are easy, accommodate medical equipment required for my healing, and let me complete my taxing physical therapy regimen. There are places to dress in comfort for healing and recovery, and a rehab facility is definitely one of them.
Reflecting on this memory, I really want to go back and ask the facility administrator—what was it that bothered you so much? Did you really see something that you had never seen before? Were you really worried about me? Because it feels like it wasn’t about me at all. Maybe it was the attention I drew being a young woman surrounded by older people? Maybe it was the fact that my dignity cannot be compromised, because it is ultimately up to me to decide.