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Can naughty nurse imagery launch a career?

August 2005 -- The cover of this month's issue of the Australian magazine Ralph features Gianna, a former contestant on Australia's "Big Brother" program, in a "naughty nurse" outfit that is essentially bikini underwear. Just an isolated effort to sell magazines by exploiting the nurse-as-sex-worker image that has contributed to the global nursing crisis? Hardly. Gianna, who hopes to make it in film and TV, apparently made a different naughty nurse outfit a major feature of her time on the popular reality show. She auctioned that outfit off very publicly last month for the benefit of the World Society for the Protection of Animals. Whatever her other attributes, Gianna is an innovator: we are not aware of another high profile attempt to establish a mainstream entertainment career largely through naughty nurse imagery.

Gianna's "nurse" outfits seem to be getting more provocative. The Australian eBay site describes the Big Brother one recently auctioned off there (for AU $1,025) as "a legacy of Gianna's time in the Big Brother house during series 5. The uniform is a size 8, and comes with blue and white pin stripe mini dress, detachable apron with cross detail, headpiece with cross detail and matching blue lace hot pants! The mini dress (right) has been autographed by Gianna." The Big Brother site describes this "uniform" as "infamous."

But the one Gianna sports on the Ralph cover is far more revealing. It consists of white panties and a white bra with a large red cross on each breast. In the original photo she also wears a nurse's cap, though this has been cropped for the cover. (The Ralph website had a head shot of Gianna with the cap that we merged with the magazine cover above.) Oh--and the smiling Gianna also holds a stethoscope to her chest, for extra realism. We were unable to access the magazine in hard copy, so we are not sure if any additional nurse photos appeared inside.

Yes, it's just a "fantasy." But linking such sexual images so closely to the profession of nursing reinforces long-standing stereotypes that continue to discourage practicing and potential nurses, foster sexual violence in the workplace, and contribute to a general atmosphere of disrespect. Naughty nurse imagery remains prevalent and powerful in modern mainstream advertising. Recently, to take just a few examples from around the developed world, such imagery has been used to sell shoes, mobile phone service, mints, radio programming, tomato juice, motor oil, cosmetics, plastic surgery--and now, a reality show contestant! The lack of genuine respect accorded to nursing clearly continues to obstruct efforts to attract the human and financial resources needed for the profession to meet the daunting challenges of modern health care.

Our letter-writing campaign is now closed.

See a letter to Ralph by Center board member Keynan Hobbs:

Dear Ralph,

I am writing to express my dismay over your choice to feature Gianna in her "naughty nurse" costume on your August 2005 cover. While Gianna's chosen road to notoriety and any consumer's chosen form of entertainment is their own business, this is a case where much, much more is at stake and must be acknowledged.

On a global level there is a critical shortage of nurses, in even the wealthiest nations. It has been shown by sound research that when the ratio of patients to nurses is too high, people in hospitals die unnecessarily. This is because nurses are the health care professionals who are primarily responsible for surveillance of the condition of patients, not physicians who rarely appear unless warned of complications by a nurse's refined assessment skills. Internationally, the shortage of nurses in wealthy countries has created a vacuum which draws nurses away from nations where health care is already insufficient. The shortage of nurses in individual nations is already in the millions, and is projected to only increase in the next ten years if nothing is done to attract the best and brightest to the profession.

So, what does any of this have to do with Gianna and her silly outfit? The Center for Nursing Advocacy cites sources of research showing the effect representations of nursing have on whether or not young women and men choose to join the nursing profession. It is somewhat alarming that people form such strong ideas about any profession from print media and television which are intentionally sensational, but they do. This being the case, along with worldwide need for more nurses, wildly popular publications like Ralph have a responsibility to consider the impact that their imagery has on the public and the ways they contribute to problems like the nursing shortage.

Some will argue that the fantasy of Gianna's outfit is obvious, but we all know people who, despite the odds, can't seem to separate fact from fantasy. The result of this is nurses who leave the profession because of sexual harassment by patients and other health care workers who think the eroticized image of nurses in media is embodied by actual nurses. Continuing marginalization of nurses and nursing causes young adults entering college to avoid the profession, and disillusions those new to nursing. Men in nursing like myself are not unaffected by this condition as we are confronted by endless stereotypes, nor do we appreciate the cheapening of our profession's contribution any more than our female colleagues.

At this point in time, a moratorium on "naughty nurse" images in all media is warranted. The influence of the media on our nursing shortage is clear, and the only conscientious choice for magazines like Ralph is to avoid contributing to a problem that translates to unnecessary deaths of hospital patients. Maybe instead of sexualizing nurses, Ralph could run images of Gianna in "naughty magazine editor" outfits.


Keynan Hobbs, graduate student
University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing
Board Member, The Center for Nursing Advocacy


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