Go Pink?

What should veterinarians wear to work? Frivolous personal choices can yield perfectly professional results.

Patty Khuly, VMD, MBA

Originally published in the October 2015 issue of Veterinary Practice News. Enjoyed this article? Then subscribe today! 

Chico quivered pitifully under the stainless steel exam table, peeking furtively in my general direction every few seconds––probably to be sure I hadn’t suddenly altered course.

He was clearly calculating his escape options. As if my patient’s disapproval wasn’t enough, his person appeared equally dissatisfied with where this particular veterinary visit was headed.

“Good thing Chico’s colorblind, Doc, otherwise he’d be out the door by now for sure.”

Nice. Original, too.

It was one of many statements I’ve come to expect from a certain contingent of my clientele. But that’s OK. I’ve learned to accept these ill-mannered remarks as the cost of doing business.

Too bad I didn’t elect enormous breast implants instead, I’ve often mused. Those demand a degree of verbal prudence my pink hair is unlikely to ever recruit.

Let me explain.

A few years back I submitted a column on the pedestrian topic of shoes. Another time it was tattoos. Even more recently I tackled certain management gurus’ politically objectionable fashion guidelines for veterinary staff. In them all I confessed to harboring a penchant for platform shoes and a high tolerance for tattoos and piercings among my personnel.

While the comments were intended to provoke thought on the role of appearance in our profession’s increasingly homogeneous companion animal culture, I secretly longed to put these to the test.

My contention was that it shouldn’t matter what veterinarians and staff wear as long as they do a brilliant job of caring for patients and their people.

In response, some of you commented that first impressions can be, well, impressive and that appearance matters not just to practice success but to patient care, too. Most of you, however, offered that even a downright unprofessional appearance might be overlooked if a veterinary team “otherwise” excelled.

This summer I took this latter hypothesis for a test drive. Now that I own a practice and I’m my own boss, it was high time I fulfilled one of my more frivolous lifelong goals: tinting my hair pink.

But not just any pink, mind you. Clocking in at just a click under neon, this vibrant cotton candy hue would look more at home on the streets of London or Berlin than at a suburban animal hospital in Miami. Which raised the obvious question: What would my clients think?

As I watched the shade reveal itself under the heat of a South Beach salon’s industrial blow dryer, I’ll confess I wasn’t so much thinking about my clients as I was about my über-conservative Cuban mother. This would not go over well.

As predicted, it bombed with my mother––as it did with almost every other person of a certain age or cultural origin (older and Hispanic, mostly).

These clients are mostly like Chico’s owner. They either come off all polite, studiously ignoring the obvious (which I appreciate), or they take it up a notch, commenting on my poor taste in colors or brazenly remarking on the state of my sanity.

Now, partly this reaction has to do with the relationship I hold dear with my clients. These are longtime clients. Not only have they earned a certain degree of leeway and believe they’re being friendly, they likely have little experience with oddball hair colors in their personal lives and don’t know what to say. I like to think they probably have no idea they’re being rude.

Impressively, however, most of my clients claim to “LOVE it!” Which then made me worry it would prove an unwanted distraction. But as it turns out, the hair completely recedes into the background when the professional conversation ensues. Initial shock almost immediately softens into easy equanimity as soon as the patient takes center stage.

After about a week I knew this experiment would work out just fine. Better than fine, in fact. All these younger clients have been telling their friends about my hair and posting positive reviews. Practice marketing through hair color—who’d have thought it possible? Maybe I’ll change all my promo pics. Hmmm.

Not that it’s been a breeze, mind you.

All those people of a certain age and cultural mindset? They are a significant percentage of my clientele. And I do not take their feelings lightly.

After all, I understand that, in their eyes, how I present myself matters a whole lot. In their cultural lexicon, pink hair is senselessly clownish and rabidly subversive, not artistically motivated or even remotely cerebral––much less a frivolous expression of preference.

Do crazy personal choices ruin your professional career?

Patty Khuly, VMD, MBA

Do "crazy" personal choices ruin your professional career?

Are Personal Choices Worth the Professional Risk?

Sure, sixty-something Helen Mirren wore her hair pink on the red carpet a couple of years back. Despite her brilliant example, those with certain cultural sensibilities are probably never going to “get it.” Worse still, many of my clients will never be able to get past it. Which doesn’t lend itself to the kind of trust I work hard to foster among my clientele. And begs the following questions:

Knowing that I’d risk alienating even a small number of my clients, why would I adopt such a shocking pink appearance? Why would I risk these relationships, which I clearly hold dear, knowing that my patients might suffer from the breach in trust that may result?

They’re great questions. Not least because they raise interesting arguments about the power of personal appearance when it comes to influencing others––not to mention the putative responsibility of any individual to approximate the cultural norm for the sake of the “greater good” and practice success alike (as touted by those above-mentioned practice management professionals). 

While interesting, this line of thinking is kind of scary. After all, if certain cultural pressures were still in effect, there’d be no pink-haired veterinarians for sure. And no women in the veterinary profession, either.

Ultimately, my appearance is not only wholly superficial, it’s utterly meaningless to my patients. It’s only one among a great number of variables that influence how I perform as a veterinary professional. Why harp on the stuff that’s technically not even skin deep when factors like scientific curiosity, work ethic and innate compassion should matter so much more?

The way I see it, I’ve spent way more of my life than necessary altering my appearance to suit others. I’ve already twisted myself into scrub-clad, clog-wielding pretzels to match my profession’s penchant for a certain kind of uniformity. It’s about time the little insignificant things started to matter just a little less.

It’s sad I took this long to change something as simple as my hair color. It’s even more telling that I felt it necessary to own my own practice before going there.

All of which makes me wonder what the future of veterinary medicine looks like now that fewer veterinarians are owning their own places and practice management is becoming an increasingly standardized subject of study. Probably a whole lot less colorful than it would otherwise have been is my guess.

It’s not what I want my profession to look like, which explains why I probably won’t be back to blond anytime soon. Partly anyway. I mean, pink is glorious. You should try it. Really. Call me. I’ll talk you through it.

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