Jennifer Gunter: ‘Women are being told lies about their bodies’

Jennifer Gunter: ‘Women are being told lies about their bodies’

Dear Ms Paltrow,’ began Dr Jen Gunter’s open letter of 2017, regarding the jade eggs Paltrow was promoting on her website Goop. Paltrow claimed that inserting one into the vagina would improve a woman’s life, in at least four ways. “It is the biggest load of garbage I have read on your site since vaginal steaming. It’s even worse than claiming bras cause cancer. But hey, you aren’t one to let facts get in the way of profiting from snake oil.” And so it began. It was a war on wellness – an industry now worth more than $4.2tn (£3.5tn) – and every battle went viral, leading to Gunter becoming the most famous gynaecologist in the world.

When one of Goop’s “medical experts” wrote that Gunter was “strangely confident” in her thoughts on jade eggs, she replied: “I am not strangely confident about vaginal health; I am appropriately confident because I am the expert.” Many of her statements end with similar mic drops. It is a rare moment when a gynaecologist becomes an international celebrity, and it comes on a wave of misinformation, fear and continued attacks on the bodily autonomy of women. One Goop fan called Gunter the “vaginal Antichrist”

We meet for lunch in London – a single mother, she’s left her teenage sons sleeping at the hotel. She is tall and swears saltily, and yesterday, on her way from San Francisco, turned 53 at 30,000ft. “I upgraded our tickets. I thought, I’m not celebrating my birthday in a middle seat, you know?” Though she became famous for her sharp criticisms of Paltrow (the jade egg scandal led to a lawsuit against Goop’s marketing), she has branched out from bodies and blogging, with two columns in the New York Times, a web series that unpicks health myths and a new book, The Vagina Bible.

The book is already a bestseller, a sign there is a need for her expertise; last month a 62-year-old woman was hospitalised with second-degree burns after steaming her vagina. But it’s not just Goop that Gunter is called to comment on – her knowledge is required daily, whether to debunk Teen Vogue’s advice on how to achieve a “summer vagina”, anti-vaxxers, or to illuminate the way confusion around women’s bodies fuels political efforts to control them. Confusion that results in (as a 2016 study revealed) only 56% of British women being able to locate the vagina on a diagram.

in goop Health SummitNEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 27: Gwyneth Paltrow attends the in goop Health Summit on January 27, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for Goop)
 ‘One of the speakers said love cured her cancer, but neglected to say she’d also had chemotherapy’: Gunter on Paltrow’s Goop summit. Photograph: Ilya S Savenok/Getty Images

Pouring a glass of water, Gunter argues that the wellness industry and the anti-abortion industry are, if not exactly dancing together, certainly at the same disco. The former manipulates that confusion to take women’s money, the latter to take their power. “I even started to notice overlap between the language,” she says with a shudder. “The anti-science views of wellness and the anti-science of the religious right. Themes like ‘purity’ and ‘cleanliness’ with their similar rituals. It’s predatory. It’s the patriarchy by another name. And it keeps women back by telling them lies about their body. They might be different lies, but the effect is the same.” It is her responsibility, she says, with something like a sigh, to “step up”.

Born in Canada, it wasn’t until the late 1990s when Gunter moved to the US and started working in Kansas that she had a “political awakening” – quote marks her own. A patient had a medical condition that was deteriorating rapidly because of her pregnancy. Except, abortions on state property had just been made illegal unless it was a “medical emergency”; the hospital’s attorney said if Gunter performed one she would be fired. So, she called the legislator who wrote the law, who breezily told her to do what she thought best. She was furious. Furious at the man applauding a law in public while deferring to her expertise in private, furious that she’d have to defend herself if she’d been arrested and furious at the knowledge that women will die if these laws remain.

Something shifted in Gunter. Her work started to expand beyond the hospital walls – she’d see ripples relating to women’s health in the tabloid press, in presidential debate. Celebrity trends would leak into the anxieties of her patients, her own personal life became political. In 2003, pregnant with triplets, her waters broke far too early. The next day she delivered her 1lb baby alone in a hospital bathroom. He lived for three minutes. After later giving birth to two sons with severe health complications, she quit obstetrics.

The experiences traumatised and awakened her. One of her sons has cerebral palsy. “At some point, someone will discover the science behind it, and we’ll see if we can fix it. The operations my sons had when they were babies were a lesson that there’s just some things in medicine they don’t have answers for yet.” Or, as she realised: “There are no miracles, there’s just undiscovered science.”

Which is one of the reasons she understands the impact of sites like Goop. As a doctor she knew that scrolling for cures was a waste of time, but as a parent she wanted to believe in magic. “These sites offer you that emotional connection that doctors often jumped. And I think that’s a big fault of medicine. When I trained, we were taught that you don’t talk about yourself with patients, you keep a stiff upper lip. But part of my success comes from people wanting their doctor to be a human. They want their doctor to be authentic. They want to know their doctor cares for them.”

Her authenticity arrives like this, in bloody stories of personal trauma, used in tandem with her expertise to bolster arguments about science, but also in more unexpected places. For instance, in The Vagina Bible (a book whose ads were blocked on Twitter because its algorithm flags “vulgar, obscene or distasteful” words) her advice on pubic hair removal is based around the detail that she rarely has a clean razor and she refers, cuttingly, to an ex who told her that her vagina smelled. Facts are important to her – crystals are bullshit, you should not put glitter in your vagina, razors get blunt. But facts aren’t enough and Gunter’s skill is in her rawness, her frankness about her own experiences and the way she takes celebrity trends apart like oranges, spitting out pips.

“When I realised that people were believing Goop’s fairy tales, I thought: ‘I’ll take them on.’” The first anti-Goop post she wrote, on vaginal steaming, centred around the idea that women have long been believed to be unclean. “It’s one of the core beliefs of the patriarchy. That women are dirty inside. And yet Goop presents this as female empowerment? In Hippocrates’s time they used to think that the womb wandered the body, causing mayhem, and you would coax it back into place by putting fragrant herbs between the legs. This is the same thing. It’s in so many cultures, this belief that the uterus is toxic. I couldn’t believe it was now being presented as female empowerment. It’s bad feminism. And it’s bad science.”

Last year, she went to the Goop summit. “Under my real name, of course. I mean, my whole thing is like, ‘the truth’, right?” She chuckles darkly. “There were three talks on how death isn’t real. Apparently when you die, you can use love in your brain to bring you back from the dead. Did you know that? One of the speakers said love cured her cancer, but neglected to tell everybody she’d also had chemotherapy. She said she got cancer because she was ‘afraid of getting cancer’. That was a very common theme, that fear is the cause of the illness, and that love is the cure.”

In a New York Times column, Gunter showed that cancer patients who seek out alternative remedies are more likely to die sooner, because relying on, say, “love”, means they delay medical treatment. “Apart from anything, it’s so insulting to anybody who’s ever had an illness, right, that you somehow created it yourself?” Her small bursts of fury are thrilling. She bangs her glass.

At the Goop summit, a medium came into the audience where Gunter was sitting, and called out questions. “‘Has anyone in the room thought about buying a handbag?’ I mean, we’re in a room full of rich women. ‘Does anyone like shoes?’ And they were eating it up. They were eating it up.” Later, musing on Goop’s love of mediums on her blog, she wondered: “How do ghosts have so much health information anyway? Are they all doctors?”

She was stunned, and yes, angry. “Paltrow is able to call up any magazine in the world and get on the cover. And this is what she’s doing with her privilege. Grifting off desperate women.”

Why does she think Paltrow does it? She pauses, thoughtful. “Sometimes people need to explain their success in a way that makes them feel better about themselves? Goop goes back to the fact that women have been destabilised by constantly being told they need to improve, along with the idea that they can have it all.” Which now includes living forever and all the babies you want, and no pain, ever. “It’s also about recognising the fact that the patriarchy has told them their emotions aren’t valid. Like: you shouldn’t cry when you’re mad. I think Goop telling women that fear causes illness, that your emotions control you, preys on the societal belief that it’s wrong to show emotion.”

Would she like to sit down with Paltrow one day, have a conversation about, say, weaponising women’s fears about femininity? “No, I don’t think I’d ever get an answer that would be satisfying. People have had to spend money, just to prove her breast cancer bra thing was false, money that could have been used to study something important. Many of the medical experts she publishes are part of the anti-vaccine world and post a lot of conspiracy theories. So, either it’s a grift, or she’s a true believer. As a ‘feminist businesswoman’ she’s claimed the right to ‘try out’ being a reporter, and then, ‘try out’ being a doctor. It doesn’t work like that.”

Gunter smiles thinly. “But, you know, she’s not the first.” She leans back and tells a story about a man called John Brinkley. Born in 1885, he took his “medicine show” to rural towns, hawking a sex tonic. He bought a diploma in “eclectic medicine” and set up a business injecting coloured water into the veins of men concerned about their virility. After skipping town on a sea of debt, he opened a clinic where he transplanted goat testicles into people who were “sexually weak”. “He was marketing to people with ‘adrenal fatigue’ – familiar, right? He made a lot of money very quickly, so bought off politicians and then bought the local radio station, so he controlled the media. It’s not so different to what a celebrity will do today. The victims died as true believers.” She shrugs.

Has anything changed? “I think more people are starting to ask questions. More people are starting to think, ‘Who should I consider as an expert on a subject?’ And, ‘What does this person have to gain by giving me information?’ I do think this has always been a constant in society. The difference is, we’re becoming more aware of it now. And I think we’re close to breaking through.”

She is veering away from Goop, partly because she’s concentrating on things she sees as more important, like keeping abortion legal (“Pulling fetal skulls out of abdomens after clandestine abortions isn’t something I want to do again”) and partly because, ouch, “it feels like punching down.” Now Gunter wants to spend her time helping women understand their bodies, bringing down the patriarchy, and finishing her lunch. In no particular order.

Myths and medicine: an exclusive extract from the Vagina Bible

Parsley in the vagina
The sprig. Stuffed up the vagina each night for three to four nights to induce a period. Look, I don’t make this stuff up, I just report on it. Apparently some people — people who are wrong – think it could stimulate uterine contractions. There is no evidence vaginal application of parsley can do that, but even if it could that would not make you have a period. Progesterone withdrawal causes a period, not uterine contractions.

Jade eggs for your ‘yoni’
The idea is that you put an egg-shaped jade rock in your vagina and it puts you in tune with your feminine energy or something. Jade eggs were promoted as an ancient secret of Chinese concubines and queens. I researched this and published my data in a peer-reviewed medical journal – they are not. The only thing ancient about it is the absence of science.

Birth-control pills cause weight gain
This has been well studied, and the answer is no. This is not disbelieving women; this is the exact opposite. This is taking what women report about weight gain and studying it. This data really reflects doctors listening to women. Several studies have shown no link between birth-control pills and weight gain. The life situation associated with starting new contraception may be associated with weight gain, but the pill is not.

Hormonal contraception causes ‘infertility’
Nope, but the patriarchy trying to scare you away from controlling reproductive health is invested in this myth. Sadly, many ‘natural’ health proponents capitalise on this fear as well. With the injection, there can be a delay of several months of return to fertility, but by one year all women are back to baseline. With all other methods of contraception, once stopped or removed, you are good to go pregnancy-wise the next month.

Fancy water
The latest is so-called ‘alkaline water’. Water has a pH of 7, and alkaline water has been modified so the pH is 8 or 9. This is an extension of the so-called alkaline diet, which has been promoted to ‘neutralise the acid in your body’ (medical gibberish) to treat just about everything, even as a treatment for cancer. IT’S NOT. Why all caps? Because people have followed the alkaline diet for cancer and died. The man who wrote the book that helped popularise the alkaline trend was arrested for practising medicine without a licence and sentenced to three years and eight months in jail. This is a grift of epic proportions.

Magnets next to your vagina for hot flushes
Sometimes I worry I am going to sprain my neck with my eye rolls writing about these and the ‘science’ *cough, cough* behind them.

Yogurt for yeast infections
It doesn’t contain the strains of lactobacilli that are important for vaginal health. When a woman puts yogurt in her vagina, she is putting other bacteria there and the consequences are unknown. It may feel soothing because it is cream-like, but the risks are unknown and it will be ineffective.

Coffee enemas
Dear God, no. People, even some doctors, promote this to treat depression! I. Just. Can’t. Even. Medically speaking, to believe coffee in your rectum could treat anything is ludicrous. I mean, why doesn’t drinking it have the same effect? It is a rabbit hole of epic proportions.

Steaming the vagina
This is promoted to ‘cleanse’ the uterus. This ties into a destructive myth that the uterus is unclean or that a period is cleaning the uterus. The idea of a toxin-filled uterus is literally used by many cultures to exclude women from society – it’s a defining characteristic of the patriarchy. So telling women this exists is promoting a patriarchal idea.

Final thoughts
Power and health are linked. You can’t be an empowered patient and get the health outcomes you want with inaccurate information and half-truths. I’ve been attacked for coming out against the misinformation and disinformation that are presented to women as worthy of consideration. True choice – weighing your personal risk-benefit ratio and making a decision for your body based on that information – requires facts. And it is this quest to give women facts that keeps me up at night. It is why I keep fighting. The patriarchy and snake oil have had a good run, but I’m done with how they negatively affect and weaponise women’s health. So I am not going to stop swinging my bat until everyone has the tools to be an empowered patient and those who seek to subjugate women by keeping them from facts about their bodies have shut up and taken a seat in the back of class. That’s my vagenda.

www.theguardian.com