Blushing in the Office

Girls blush, sometimes, because they are alive, Half wishing they were dead to save the shame.

I’ve always liked those lines from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh;  I have no idea how I came across them, because I have never read the work –nor likely ever would. I even had to look them up to find the source. Some words are burdock, I suppose, and merely walking past them risks a life-long passenger.

The blush can also be adherent –an unwelcome internal repatriation to a country from which one’s recent escape did not go unnoticed. A reminder that we live our lives in glass and walk the days observed. It is a reminder that we do not live alone.

When I was younger blushing seemed a way of life, a price levied on daily interactions. Unpredictable as a rule, they came upon me as I went about my day and I learned to live with them as I might a limp or minor speech impediment. I could compensate, work around them. They became background. But I realize I say this as an adult well practiced in retrospective memory alteration. Survival to maturity is seldom marked by adaptive failures.

But a gynaecologist is privileged to deal with all ages, including those who have not yet discovered equanimity with the world. Despite elaborate facades of insouciance, there is a fragility that surrounds them like a gauze veil –only muddily transparent and easily deformed. It opacifies with age, of course; it hardens into walls of varying thickness that are sometimes impossible to penetrate, but in their malleable phases, they are frames for guileless beauty. Innocence. Naivete. Blushes.

And it is the latter of these that is often so beguiling. And awkward.

Sometimes –often, in fact- the blush is a signpost with a different message on each side: as you approach it announces a warning not to go any further along the road; but on the other side, if you look back, it thanks you for proceeding. For persisting. For understanding how difficult it is to talk about. Few wish to strip themselves sufficiently bare to risk being unfairly judged, and that is what a blush may presuppose. The path is heavily mined with fears and expectations –and hope.


Her face suddenly reddened. I couldn’t tell if she was blushing or angry –maybe it was both. “Why did you ask me that, doctor?” she said, glaring at me from behind the stop signs of her eyes. It had been a perfectly ordinary visit up until that point. She had come to me with a complaint of pelvic pain which had begun only two months before. She’d never experienced it previous to that.

I smiled to neutralize her obvious concern. “Well you seemed pretty certain about when it started…”

Her eyes changed signs. “Things have to start somewhere. Sometime.”

I nodded in agreement. “Very true. So, was there something you can think of that might have started it? Caused it?” I tried to keep my expression hopeful. Open. Innocent.

The reddness deepened and her cheeks looked ready to burst into flame –this time there was no mistaking it for anything but a blush of embarrassment. She looked down at the desk, avoiding any eye contact. “Well, we were trying something new…” she said in an almost inaudible whisper to her hands that had finally materialized on her lap.

I waited silently to give her an opportunity to explain, but she began to put on her coat instead. There were tears in her eyes and she was obviously uncertain what to do. “If you tell me about it, maybe I can help,” I said, but softly. Carefully.

She looked up with an angry expression on her face. “You’re a man!” she almost screamed at me. “I didn’t want to see a male doctor; I told my GP it wouldn’t work…” She lowered her voice a little. “I’m sorry doctor, but you just wouldn’t understand.” Her mouth trembled as she said that and her brow stayed furrowed, but her eyes were pleading. Frightened.

“Sometimes we men are a problem Janice, but sometimes we can just listen.” I was instantly embarrassed that I hadn’t thought of anything else to say –something profound and wise. Something to indicate that I was different. I have to admit that I even blushed in shame.

The effect on her was immediate -her face relaxed and her cheeks coloured again, but this time in reply to my obvious discomfort. We had a connection now. A shared link. And she needed to talk.

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