When Sophie was handed her very first pair of scrubs as a brand-new medical student at a prestigious university in Southern California, it was a moment that really made her feel like a real-live doctor, a dream that she’s had ever since she was a kid playing hospital with her stuffed animals and a box of Band-Aids. She had grown up in the early 2000s watching doctors on TV, who saved lives in between nurturing dramatic romances, all while wearing those tell-tale scrubs in pale blue and sea green. Even if Meredith Grey or Cristina Yang lived in a world where it seemed more common to treat patients with bombs in their torsos than acid reflux in their guts, Sophie still saw something genuine in how invested these doctors were in their patients. “I remember that medicine took over their lives, and how much they loved the work.”
Sophie had that same passion, grit, and purpose. But when she finally put her scrubs on, she was surprised that they actually distracted her from the work.
“They were boxy and oversized. The pants dragged on the floor even if I rolled the waist up four or five times,” Sophie tells me. “I have to spend twelve hours a day in them, and they’re so uncomfortable.” Even though they came in a variety of sizes, scrubs fit her body as precisely as an oven mitt fits a hand.
Medical students, especially women, trade scrub gaffes like war stories: One student at USC’s Keck School of Medicine told me about a time when she, during a marathon operation in which it was imperative that she stand completely still for hours on end, realized that the drawstring to her pants had come undone, causing her pants to slowly slip down her body. After she accepted the fact that she’d soon be mooning the entire operating room, a female nurse realized what was happening, and stepped in to retie her drawstrings. “Let me help you with these, honey,” the nurse said to her. “We’ve all been there.”
Aside from those hospital-issued scrubs, Sophie’s other option was to buy personal pairs from medical supply shops or big-box stores like Walmart or TJ Maxx, but they weren’t quite right. These scrubs were either hyper-feminine, coming in garish floral patterns or with hot-pink zippers; or they were cartoonishly “sporty,” featuring mesh shoulder panels, like a modest jogging outfit for an American Girl Doll.
So when Sophie saw her mentor, an ophthalmologist, wearing a pair of scrubs that actually fit, she decided to buy a pair, too. They were from Figs, a company that made products specifically for medical professionals, but wrapped with the sort of slick, minimalist branding she recognized from companies like makeup brand Glossier, workout label Outdoor Voices, and wool-sneaker company AllBirds. Figs, like those direct-to-consumer brands, also had a sans-serif font, an easy ordering process, quippy copy, and effortlessly cool models. The scrubs, too, came in more streamlined cuts that made legs look longer and butts look rounder, and were offered in on-trend colors like charcoal gray, olive green, and millennial pink. There was even a hashtag to use when you took selfies in your scrubs: #wearfigs. For the first time, Sophie found scrubs actually fit her, in every way.
Better yet, the brand seemed like they were willing to speak to medical providers like her on their level, engaging in conversations about the hardships, absurdities, and successes that she saw in her industry. Sophie, who asked for anonymity because her program’s advisors did not recommend that she participate in this interview, began posting pictures of herself in the scrubs on Instagram. Soon after, Figs named her an ambassador. Now, she’s sent scrubs for free.
Founded in 2013, Figs was the brainchild of fashion designer and medical school dropout Heather Hassan, who abandoned her necktie company — also called Figs — and joined forces with former Blackstone Group associate Trina Spear to create a start-up that would provide healthcare professionals with better-fitting, higher quality scrubs.
Scrubs are a $60 billion global industry of which hospitals make up only a fraction of potential customers. There is no formal data regarding which percentage of hospitals and clinics provide scrubs for their staff, but according to Heather and Trina’s research, 90% of medical professionals have to buy their own uniforms. What’s more, scrubs are mandated attire, but the specifics are largely unregulated, which means that most individuals can choose whatever brand, cut, or style they like best. But until Figs, no other scrubs brand had ever provided a product that looked and felt much different from what was already on offer.
And Figs certainly look different, even from afar: The scrubs are cut more like trendy workout clothes than pajamas, with slimmer, straighter fits. The shirts are shaped like T-shirts, and designed to be tucked in, achieving that trendy hourglass shape that’s become de rigueur among stylish young people today. Pant legs are short — especially in the brand’s popular jogger style — and are often styled on Figs’ website with no-socks and low-profile sneakers à la your favorite hypebeast.
Even I — a writer seemingly well outside their target demo — had inadvertently begun to recognize them in public. I saw Figs advertised everywhere on billboards in Los Angeles, in subways in New York, and all over the internet. I saw them in person, too, while at the dentist’s and the grocery store, on reporting trips to St. Louis, while visiting family in Minneapolis, at a pit stop in Provo, and when picking up lunch in Santa Monica. It didn’t me long before I started recognizing “Figs doctors” upon sight, and feeling like they were, somehow, a little different than the typical professional: more internet-savvy, maybe vainer, for whom the phrase “the oat milk of scrubs” is a meaningful collection of words.
But if you ask Figs’ customers, the ultimate difference isn’t how they look, it’s in how they feel. “They’re so comfortable,” says Karina De La Cruz, a behavior health nurse technician from Arizona. “They’re really flexible, even though they’re nice and professional. The material is different.” That material — a proprietary fabric that took Heather and Trina two years to develop — is antimicrobial, anti-odor, stain-repellant, and has four-way stretch, which means that they not only look more like workout clothing, but they perform like it, too, a necessity for medical professionals whose jobs are oftentimes more physical than they are mental. Every medical professional I spoke to agreed that Figs were more comfortable than traditional scrubs.
As such, Figs scrubs — which retails for $84 for a full set — can cost multiple times what typical scrubs do, which range from about $10 to $60. But unlike regular scrubs, they’ll last basically forever as long as they don’t get stained. Amy Krahl, a dermatology physician’s assistant from South Carolina still owns and wears Figs scrubs she first purchased from 2013: “The fabric has held up, they haven’t faded, and there’s no pilling. They still look perfect.”
In the seven years Figs has been in operation, the brand has raised $75 million in funding and was identified by Inc. Magazine in 2018 as one of the fastest-growing companies that year, reporting earnings of around $100 million in revenue. Figs doubled that amount in 2019, and is profitable. In recent years, other direct-to-consumer scrubs companies have sprung up with similarly trend-forward branding, but Figs is the clear leader in this new cottage industry of “cool scrubs.”
But Figs hasn’t just redesigned medical ware. They’ve also played a part in reshaping the medical persona, actively encouraging their community of medical providers to attach their own public professional brand to their interior lives. The hashtag #wearfigs is a rapidly populating stream of posts, with just a small percentage coming from Figs’ official roster of 200 ambassadors who receive free scrubs but are not compensated otherwise. When you’re scrolling through, the medical professionals you see in the scrubs are the type who’d make you wish you had put on a better outfit before you ended up in the ER. They’re good-looking and know it, they save lives and they’re proud of it, but they also engage in the kind of social media-accepted behavior that seems to challenge the kind of authoritative, stoic doctor archetype that we’ve come to expect.
Some of these photos are wholesome. Some are sexy. Others are cringey. One future dentist posted a photo of himself in scrubs outside of a clinic, doing a bent-armed, off-kilter handstand that you typically only see in freeze-frame shots of breakdancers, but with a serene demeanor totally devoid of exertion. “TO THOSE WHO SAY WE SHOULDN’T, I SAY WE MUST. TO THOSE WHO SAY WE CAN’T, I SAY WATCH US,” the caption shouts, seemingly about both his approach to handstands as well as the way he viewed his job. In the same vein, I came across a photo of a man hoisting a woman whose legs were wrapped around him, saturation-enhanced sunset in the background and beach sand all around them. They were both wearing scrubs, with stethoscopes around their necks. “We just be saving lives together,” the caption reads. My favorite account belongs to a medical student in Miami, @doctor.ribeye, whose Instagram looks like it was manifested by the collective wishes of all marriage-obsessed moms with single daughters: He’s an ER doctor, plays the guitar, does sex, and his biceps — which he makes sure to flex in every scrub selfie he posts — are roughly the shape of two French bulldogs.
But other posts gave me more pause. One student in nursing school published a smiling mirror selfie wearing Figs pants, with a long caption that starts out: “I watched someone ‘expire’ today.” The rest of the post went onto describe a profound experience she had while in the Telemetry unit, monitoring a patient’s vitals as they died. The weight and seriousness of the caption only makes the casual selfie it accompanies more disturbing. A week before, she had posted another smiling photo of her in head-to-toe Figs, with a caption that revealed that even though she had studied every day, she had failed a critical nursing school exam. Still, she wrote that she was committed to trying again because, in her words, she’s no less of a nurse because she failed an exam. Figs’ official Instagram account liked both photos, even though they were not tagged in either.
There were other public posts that confessed feelings of insecurity, struggle, failure, and even hatred for their job. There are also thousands of medical professionals engaging in sponsored content, taking photos of themselves in their hospital uniforms while endorsing products like hair growth supplements, snacks, pharmacies, and skincare products.
Clearly, Figs provides a product that medical professionals want. Culturally, they’ve also created the space for healthcare providers to publicly express highly personal thoughts that they, before, were advised to keep private. Their community says it’s what they want: a new way to dress, and a new standard of behavior. But are medical professionals, whose vocation calls for a sense gravity and professionalism similar to law enforcement or public servants, the right group to be “real” — to share their most vulnerable moments on a platform where their patients can easily find them? And by using marketing to encourage these professionals to open up, is Figs exposing them to scrutiny that could compromise their credibility?
When Tyra left the army because of a foot injury in spring of last year, she had to undergo a series of medical tests as part of her discharge. During one of these visits, an X-ray technician began chatting with her about his own time in the army. He was friendly and professional in person, but when Tyra got into her car in the parking lot, she saw that he had DM’d her on Instagram.
“He said something like, ‘Hey it was really cool to get to know you today.’ I asked him how he got my information, and he said he looked through my medical records. It was so creepy. I blocked him immediately,” says Tyra, who prefers to use a pseudonym as she still works in the same small city as the technician, and fears retaliation. That interaction was an extreme example of a medical professional using social media unprofessionally with her as a patient. But since that interaction, Tyra’s now wary of all doctors who use Instagram to connect their personal lives to their professional careers.
“I want to think that doctors and nurses have their shit together. When I see them posting mirror selfies in their scrubs all the time, it makes me question their mindset. Are you bored at work? Why are you bored at work? Are you distracted? How would you interact with me as a patient?” questions Tyra.
“I don’t care what they do outside of work. Like, if I came across my doctor on Facebook with their family on vacation — whatever. I know that they have a life outside of work. But if they’re in their scrubs, something about that feels different.”
Unlike other uniforms, like for the military, that use ornamentation to communicate status along with professionalism and authority, medical uniforms were purposefully designed to be humble, spartan, and modest. Florence Nightingale standardized nursing dresses in the mid-1800s, and deliberately modeled them off nun’s habits so that her nurses maintained an indisputable air of humility. In the 1940s, hospital uniforms were designed to be purely functional for those who had to “scrub in” to the clean environment of operating rooms; in the ‘80s, easily washable, mass-produced scrubs eventually became the standard uniform for nonsurgical staff, too, including physical therapists, veterinarians, dentists, dermatologists, and physician’s assistants. For the same reason, most hospital dress codes prohibit extreme makeup, flashy jewelry, shorts, or brand names to make sure that patients like Tyra feel safe and attended to.
Figs believes they’ve added another dimension to this identity of medical providers, though one could argue that the brand has instead subtracted a degree of professionalism. But, the brand has successfully done what all clothing labels aim to do: Figs has convinced shoppers that its products are the more fashionable and stylish option that also allow wearers to express a unique statement about who they are. Figs scrubs, as advertised online and off to medical providers and their patients alike, explicitly connect the image of a person in slim-fitting, cute scrubs to the persona of a medical professional who believes that bringing their whole self to work is a good thing.
On its Instagram account, Figs builds this “we’re all human” persona by posting photos with captions like “remember that you’re never in this alone,” and videos that show physicians feeling underwater at work — getting yelled at by a male attending, scarfing down a Tupperware lunch, having to go into a stairway to take a private call. In the same video, the woman later finds herself literally underwater, swimming in the open sea and then dipping below the surface as the sound of a flatlining heartbeat plays. Who, exactly, is dying is unclear. On Instagram, the 360+ comments on this video about a new scrub colorway (sea-glass green) were enthusiastic; “That’s me,” people said over and over.
“We’re not asking people to do anything other than be themselves,” responds Trina when I ask whether Figs has intentionally used their ambassadors to broadcast this more vulnerable, “real,” and raw medical professional. Heather adds: “To be part of the Figs family as a medical influencer means you wear our scrubs, and it means that you tell your story on Instagram.” (Figs ambassadors are not technically obligated to post about the scrubs, or talk about their issues, though most do.)
Figs has built this community in service of its own marketing. The official Figs account will signal-boost some accounts by reposting images onto their own feeds, and turn some of the most prolific contributors into official ambassadors. But, Figs’ community building is limited. There are no support groups or formal mentorship networks. There are, however, many pieces of marketing that feature its ambassadors wearing Figs scrubs, which include commercials interviewing inspiring ambassadors within their communities as part of their Awesome Humans series, and a commercial series titled Outside The Box that filmed ambassadors posing in a colorful clinical sets, talking about how their unconventional approaches are professional strengths. As part of its Threads for Threads charitable initiative that provides free scrubs to under-resourced healthcare professionals around the world, Figs also hosts an annual mission trip that gives a small group of ambassadors an opportunity to hand-deliver donations. The brand also invites ambassadors to one-off co-branded events with other brands like workout brand Lululemon and meditation app Headspace, as well as events put on to promote Figs campaigns.
But what’s perhaps the most superficial function they do offer — providing a hashtag on Instagram for medical professionals to candidly post their thoughts — seems to mean something profound for those who participate.
“Doctors, residents, and students are suffering. They’re stressed out and sad. They’re isolated,” says Kiah McSwain, a second-year medical student at Florida State University, who documents her life and career on Instagram at @kiahmfit. “Being able to have some creative outlet honestly feels life-changing.”
Kiah was recently named as a Figs ambassador, and even attributes some of the confidence she’s experienced as a medical student to the #wearfigs community. It’s too early for Kiah to have picked a speciality yet, but she’s found mentorships and research opportunities within the medical influencer community who feel that publicly acknowledging all parts of a job, including the negative, is part of being a well-rounded medical professional. “Figs cultimates a community that allows us to be more than a checkbox. We’re not just medical professionals. We’re artists and influencers. I want to be myself, and use that to become a better medical professional.”
It’s dubious whether using social media to address anxiety and depression is effective in managing mental health issues, but the practice is widespread, even within the #wearfigs universe. Posts reference physician burnout that’s fueled by preposterous work hours, steep competition, crippling debt, and low salaries (on average, residents carry $250k in student loans and earn just $61.2k a year — which shakes out to about $14 an hour). According to a 2018 report done by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and others, these systematic issues are leading to a public health crisis that has already undermined doctors’ abilities to effectively treat patients. Suicide rates on the rise; the issues young doctors face are dire.
Many of the captions using the #wearfigs hashtag are about the need to be seen and heard, and about feeling disenfranchised and disempowered, and the desire to be validated. They mimic the language of communities formed around intrinsic qualities like gender, race, or illness. Being a medical professional is not the same type of identity — doctors obviously enjoy more power and authority in society than the average professional. But for those experiencing burnout, choosing medicine as a profession can feel like a hardship to be overcome.
It’s not unreasonable to want your healthcare providers to be selfless in their actions, and confident in their abilities and decisions. In the same way that kids wig out when they see their teachers at the grocery store, many patients feel unnerved when they see those whose jobs are to understand and promote health engaging in behavior that can be seen as superficial or worse (if you search “found my doctor on Instagram,” the reactions are rarely positive). I’ve spoken with many medical professionals, too, who told me they would never wear Figs because there’s a stigma that Figs doctors are conceited, while they, at the same time, told me that Figs’ scrubs fit, feel, and perform better than what they currently wear.
As Los Angeles-based neuropsychologist Rebecca Lesser Allen sees it, patients should — and do — hold medical professionals to a higher standard of decorum, including on social media. “When you wear scrubs, you become someone with a tremendous amount of power,” she says, cautioning medical professionals from abusing their authority when they’re visibly in “healthcare” mode.
The real danger is when medical influencers behave in what Rebecca calls gurusim: “If you want to be like me, look like me, feel like me, and have what I have, all you have to do is be treated by me. That’s a dangerous idea.” In Rebecca’s training, she was taught to be mindful that she never uses her patients to fulfill her own needs and insecurities. “That’s when people start abusing their power and behaving like problematic providers,” she says, pointing out that Instagram’s center of gravity is naturally narcissistic, and medical providers who don’t actively push against it can easily fall into self-centered behavior.
But, being a self-centered medical influencer can be financially lucrative. There’s a growing community of medical influencers who have captured a rapt audience. Many Figs ambassadors have well over a hundred thousand followers on Instagram. According to Kiah, who does not have access to official stats on Instagram regarding who her followers are, she believes that most of her followers are medical students or other healthcare professionals, and not prospective patients, judging from the kind of engagement she gets in the form of comments and DMs.
“We go into more than $200k in debt to become doctors. In residency, we don’t make much money and work grueling shifts. I’m grateful that I don’t have to take out more loans to pay for food and gas,” says Kiah, who supplements her income with money earned from sponsored posts with fitness gear, study tools, fashion accessories, and meal prep services. Kiah’s posts are clearly labeled as ads, and she does not violate FTC ethical guidelines for medical professionals. But the ethics of the practice in general has been hotly debated; a 2018 Slate article stated that social media plays a big role in confusing personal views for professional opinions, risking both doctor credibility and patient health.
According to a 2019 Vox article, hospitals like NYU are forming ethics committees to specifically address new concerns stemming from advertisements, endorsements, and marketing on social media, but there are no concrete rules nor regulations limiting medical sponcon, which means that Kiah often turns to her fellow medical influencer mentors for advice on how to balance her need for supplemental income from the potential negative consequences to her reputation as a healthcare authority. She doesn’t want to step over ethical lines like some of her influencer peers: “You see accounts posting about CBD oil. That’s something that a future doctor should not even touch,” she says.
Among the #wearfigs community, it’s common to see posts captioned with FIGSpirations. The brand even sews them on certain styles of their pants, including phrases that said “Just saving lives, NBD,” and “Put this on. Be awesome.” Recently, Figs put out a limited-edition Star Wars collaboration that featured scrubs embroidered an emblem of the Resistance and brought back the quotes, this time from Yoda: “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”
Simple platitudes like this appear over and over on the #wearscrubs feed, used by healthcare professionals who need a pick-me-up during times they feel drained by the job. Many of them grew up with social media, which has been both a comfort and source of anxiety for those who rely on it. “People who need empowerment have come together, Figs has labeled a problem, and that’s a big reason why people like Figs,” suggests Rebecca. “But maybe if they were actually empowered, they wouldn’t need Figs anymore.”
Figs has found itself the de facto uniform of a medical community that is not satisfied with the old definitions of how professionals should present themselves. They’ve voiced a real problem within their industry, and Figs has encouraged this expression. From the outside, it’s hard to say whether mirror selfies actually benefit the healthcare industry at large, its workers, or the patients in their care. But it’s undeniable that it’s benefited Figs.
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