Last weekend a medical illustration of a pregnant person and their fetus went viral. The reason? The illustration featured a Black person and their baby. Some admitted that they didn’t realize medical illustrations predominately feature white bodies, while others felt a sense of inclusion when seeing themselves reflected in the image.
The illustrator, Chidiebere Ibe, 25, was surprised by the impact of his work.
“I wasn’t expecting it to go viral,” Ibe, who will start medical school in Ukraine next month, told NBC News. “I was just sticking up for what I believe in, advocating for equality in health through medical illustrations. I made a deliberate action to constantly advocate that there be inclusion of Black people in medical literature.”
Social media users had nothing but praise for Ibe and his work.
“Thank you so much for this!! I absolutely love this and your other illustrations. More please!! My son was fascinated with your illustration. He asked ‘Is that what I looked like in your stomach?’ Then he said, ‘That’s so cool,’” an Instagram user shared with Ibe. “He loves science and your illustrations have inspired him even more.”
“I started medical illustrations to promote the use of black skin illustrations in our medical textbooks,” Ibe wrote on a GoFundMe page dedicated to raising money for his education. “Most medical illustrations are on the Caucasian skin. This lack of diversity has important implications for medical trainees and their future patients because many conditions and signs look different based on the patient’s skin colour and therefore the black skin should be equally represented."
When Dr. Kameelah Phillips saw the illustration, she shared her thoughts on Instagram.
“(The illustration) went viral for so many reason but one of the main reasons, at least that it touched me, is because it was one of the few times that I remember in my medical training just feeling like I was seen,” Phillips, an OB-GYN and the founder of Calla Women’s Health in New York, told TODAY. “When you spend so much of your life not being seen, the moments where you feel like you are being seen, being heard and validated are so profound.”
Dr. Momon-Nelson, an OB-GYN, shared a similar message on Instagram with the title "Representation Matters."
Phillips noticed many of her friends in doctor groups sharing and discussing the image. It didn’t matter if it was a Black doctors group, a mom doctors group or an OB-GYN group, everyone was chatting about it.
“It was just so powerful for the first time we’re seeing this in medicine,” she said. “To see a Black mom and a Black fetus in that way it humanizes us. We are part of the discussion.”
Since sharing the illustration, Phillips learned that other birthing groups use people of various skin tones in their illustrations as well. She applauds these efforts and hopes that medicine encourages more illustrations that better represent diverse people they treat.
“I really hope that medicine is evolving and that there is interest,” she said. “The world is becoming so increasingly diverse; medicine cannot afford to be on the sidelines of diversity. I think that’s a push that many residences and med schools are making.”
This illustration also enlightened many white people who don’t realize how pervasive whiteness is when it comes to representation.
“When I speak to white friends, colleagues about it, they’re like, ‘Oh I didn’t realize it was such a big deal’ or ‘Why is this such a big deal?’” Phillips said. “Those types of questions really highlight the sort of overwhelming influence of white culture.”
Seeing medical conditions and states in people with varying skin colors remains important because it could lead to better treatment for all their patients.
“We know that skin, for example, is a huge issue,” Phillips said. “Skin conditions can present differently on white versus Black skin and that’s the dichotomy, right? There are so many hues in between and so it really forces us to elevate our game and we should, as medical doctors, be well-versed and capable of taking care of everyone.”
Phillips said Ibe’s illustration has encouraged discussions about the importance of representation and the need for more of it in medicine.
“I would just really encourage people to think that if a picture of a Black mother and a baby touches this many people and causes this type of conversation we have to think about why aren’t we working to be more inclusive to these millions of people,” she said. “Ordinarily a picture of a pregnant person wouldn’t evoke this type of emotion unless people were hurting. Unless it filled a void that we were all feeling.”