A Mission Of Her Own

In 20 years as an obstetrician and gynecologist, Dr. Hilda Hutcherson has helped poor women and very wealthy women. What they all have in common, she says, is a basic dissatisfaction with their bodies. Her mission is to change that. She's a professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology, and an associate dean at Columbia University's medical school, a magazine columnist and the author of three books. She spoke to NEWSWEEK's Barbara Kantrowitz.

What drew you to medicine?
I grew up in a small town in Alabama, and I had never seen a female doctor. My mother wanted to be a nurse and my father wanted to be a doctor, but neither could go to college because they were poor. I'm living their dream. They were never able to do this because they grew up poor in Alabama at the wrong time.

Outside of your own family, you didn't receive much encouragement.
One of my teachers said to me, "You have three strikes against you. You're poor, you're black and you're female. You're not going to become a doctor." When I told my high-school guidance counselor I wanted to apply to a topnotch school, she discouraged me because she said that I would just return home a failure and be an embarrassment to my parents. I said, "Forget you. I am going to do what I want to do because my parents told me I can be anything that I want to be."

You went to Stanford University and Harvard Medical School. Did you ever go back to the guidance counselor?
When I finished medical school, I went back to talk to the kids. I told them that if I did it, they could, too, and they shouldn't let people discourage them.

How did you choose women's health?
My first pelvic exam was horrendous. It was painful. I felt that I was treated like a specimen and not like a human being. I avoided going back to the gynecologist for years after that. I thought I could do better. I didn't want other women to have to go through what I went through, which is why I am teaching medical students.

What led you to specialize in sex?
On my first day as a gynecologist after I finished my residency, a woman said to me, "I have always wanted to ask somebody this and I feel comfortable with you. Is it safe to have anal sex?" And I'm, like, "I don't know. That's illegal in Alabama!" I found that most of my patients felt uncomfortable with their sexuality. They needed to know more and they didn't know where to get the information. I wanted to help them.

I love the title of your book "What Your Mother Never Told You About S-e-x." What do you wish your mother had told you?
I wish that she had told me that sex is natural and pleasurable, an important part of the human experience, and that I deserve pleasure. That's not what I was told. I wasn't told much at all, but the things that I was told tended to be on the negative side: don't get pregnant, don't get a disease. It wasn't really about the pleasurable side of sex, which is really important. It's an important part of the human experience.

We're surrounded by sexual imagery, and yet many women believe their sex lives aren't satisfying. Why is that?
The media presents an unrealistic view of what sex should be. I had patients coming to me after they watched "Sex and the City." They said, "I thought I was having great sex until I watched Samantha." I tell them that Samantha is a fictional character! In your fantasies, you can have the same kind of orgasm, but life is just not like that. People start thinking that everyone else is having better sex and then they're not happy with the sex that they are having.

What's your biggest frustration with women's health care today?
Female bodily functions have become diseases. Menstrual periods have become a problem: they're messy, they're unnecessary, they're disgusting. You can take pills to get rid of them! Well, menstrual periods are natural. Some people do have severe problems and those need to be treated, but most women are not suffering from their menstrual periods. We're taking natural female bodily functions and female anatomy and making it abnormal so we can do surgery and give women medication they don't need. Why are we making being a woman a disease?

Is this why women hate their bodies?
We are dissecting women into many little parts, and each part needs to be surgically or medically altered so that you can become the perfect woman. A lot of that comes from the media. We're constantly told that you need to do this diet, you need to take this medication. It's the constant pressure to be perfect. Is anybody really perfect? We need women to speak up and say, "Enough already." I think that's going to be the title of my next book.

What would you like to tell young women doctors?
You don't have to work so hard to prove your worthiness to others. I spent so many years trying to prove that I be-longed because I came into Ob-Gyn at a time when there were few women. That affected me mentally and emotionally. Rather than just enjoying the fact that I had accomplished what all these other people told me I would never accomplish, I felt that I had to work harder than anybody else to prove that I belonged. You don't have to do that. You should work hard because you love it. You should enjoy every moment of it. And then the rewards will come.