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LOOK: Chidiebere Ibe’s viral illustration shows we need more diversity in depicting black bodies

Picture: @ebereillustrate/Instagram

Picture: @ebereillustrate/Instagram

Published Dec 17, 2021

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I’m sure the only time most of us have seen medical illustrations was during a biology class or a visit to the doctor. It's rare for medical illustrations to go viral. But last week, medical drawings were shared across social media.

These illustrations went viral because they feature black people, something, if you might’ve noticed, that is fairly uncommon in medical imagery.

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Chidiebere Ibe, a 25-year-old aspiring neurosurgeon began drawing medical illustrations during the Covid-19 lockdown. One of the drawings includes a pregnant black woman and her foetus which received more than 97 000 likes on Instagram.

“I’m a self-taught medical illustrator, and I realised that most drawings were not on black-skin,” Ibe told ABC News.

“When I was drawing something to represent all these key conditions, I needed to have a reference point, and it became very difficult for me, because I could not (find them),” he said.

Ibe’s mentor suggested that he create diverse medical illustrations himself, sparking his work to promote diversity in medical illustrations.

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He’s now the chief medical illustrator for the Journal of Global Neurosurgery and an incoming student at Kyiv Medical University in Ukraine.

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“The majority of medical imagery consists of decontextualised images of body parts where the skin tone is the only phenotypical marker of race,” said Patricia Louie, a sociology professor at the University of Washington and a co-author of the study who highlighted one of the key problems.

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“If doctors associate light skin tones with white patients, this may also influence how doctors think about who is a ‘typical’ patient,” she said.

The study also found that when these textbooks depicted skin cancer, they used a white model patient and only showed examples of melanomas on light skin. Whereas black Americans are three times more likely to receive a late-stage cancer than whites.

Rachel Hardeman, a professor specialising in health and racial equity at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health, connects the lack of diversity in medical illustrations to racism within the health-care system as a whole. The lack of representation in medical illustrations, especially in textbooks, she said, is “reinforcing this narrative that whiteness is the norm”.

“It’s teaching our health-care workforce, our future physicians, that the standard, and what’s ‘normal’ is whiteness and everything else is to be compared to that or is different from that," Hardeman said.

Hardeman said that it’s uncommon for medical imagery around pregnancy and childbirth to feature black women. The context around medical illustrations featuring black people is important, she said.

“As we think about some of the inclusion or the lack of inclusion of black people or black bodies in the medical literature, we have to be really intentional about the messages that we are able to send through that work,” she said.

On a very positive not Ibe has received a ton of support and attention with regards to his illustrations. “The comments have been on fire,“ he said.

“And people have been recording themselves and saying how they felt about it, how the drawing made them feel and that they can actually see themselves in the drawing.”

Ibe was ecstatic and amazed by the positive feedback, “It’s such a blessing, because the purpose is to get people to be included or to be accepted in these,” Ibe said.

The future for Ibe looks even brighter, some publishers have reached out to him about including his work in their textbooks.

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