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When I was pregnant, I spent countless hours waiting for my obstetrician at the hospital.
At the time, it didn’t occur to me that the only images of a woman’s body and foetus framed on the walls were white.
But I was reminded of this recently when an illustration had the internet talking.
To the casual eye, the image looked like a standard drawing. The type of drawing that yes, you might see hanging on your obstetrician’s wall or in your local doctor’s waiting room.
Except this time, the mother’s skin and foetus pictured were black. The image was created by Nigerian medical student and illustrator, Chidiebere Ibe, and it’s reigniting a discussion about the lack of diversity in medical illustrations.
A medical illustrator is a professional artist with an advanced education in science and medicine.
There are fewer than 2,000 trained medical illustrators worldwide, according to the Association of Medical Illustrators based in the United States.
Chidiebere says he was “surprised” when his medical illustration went viral, with over 100,000 likes on the social media post.
Many people, including medical professionals, commented online that it was the first time they had seen an illustration of a dark-skinned foetus.
“It was surprising to know that most people in the healthcare sector for over 50 years had never seen a black illustration,” he says.
So why don’t we see a greater diversity in medical images?
“The frontiers of medicine and medical illustration presented white illustration and that built a normalised use of white illustration for years,” Chidiebere says.
The issue Chidiebere is highlighting resonates in Australia, too.
According to a 2014 study from the University of Wollongong, researchers found a lack of visual ethnic, age, body type and gender diversity in Australian medical textbooks.
Melbourne-based medical illustrator, Beth Croce, agrees, adding that “racial and gender disparity is a known issue in the medical illustration community”.
“Images are so influential, on many levels, so there is a feeling of responsibility for what you put out there,” Beth says.
“A long history of young, fit, white males featuring in medical illustrations was obvious and something [my medical peers and I were] keen to help balance.”
Diversity in medical illustrations
Beth is consciously working on drawings that include a variety of skin tones, facial features and body types.
“It will just take some time for publishers to replace outdated illustrations in medical textbooks with more contemporary, and inclusive artwork.”
Greater representation in medical illustrations is important to Casey Narrier, a mother of one from Perth.
For Casey — a proud Noongar Yamitji Yorga woman — the image not only put a big smile on her face, but it also made her feel proud.
“It’s important for not just black women, but our children too, to know there’s all colours in the world that can be illustrated,” Casey says.
“When I was pregnant, I would walk into the hospital and I would see images of pregnant white women for medical information.
“The images of Indigenous pregnant women would be [on] leaflets about how drinking can affect your baby … it felt like racial gaslighting.”
Working towards healthcare equality
Chidiebere hopes that through showcasing diverse medical illustrations, he can contribute towards greater healthcare equity.
He wants medical training to include the knowledge of how different symptoms appear on darker skin.
“There has been a long implicit bias towards black people, where they are devalued and not respected,” he explains.
For Chidiebere, greater racial representation in medical illustrations is a mission he will continue to be committed to — and his illustrations will be featured as part of a clinical handbook.
“Kudos to all illustrators that have been working hard to illustrate black skin,” he says.
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