Dr Jen Gunter deals in straight-talk, hard facts and medical science. So profiteering gurus who peddle myths and misinformation about gynae health make her want to scream, as she tells Bridget Harrison.
Dr Jen Gunter cannot hide her scorn as she recalls attending a Goop wellness convention, hosted by Gwyneth Paltrow, in New York. ‘I thought, “Am I the only person here thinking this is a cult?”’ She rolls her eyes. ‘They had a female speaker who claimed love cured her stage-four cancer; this person neglected to tell the audience – and I looked her up afterwards – that she had had chemotherapy.’
Dr Gunter is a US obstetrician and gynaecologist turned social media star who writes a searing blog that debunks medical misinformation. She’s ferociously cutting, meticulously well-informed. And she’s got zero time for celebrities who promote what she calls ‘pseudo-science’.
I am meeting her in London to talk about her latest book, but it’s Gwyneth we need to discuss first. Dr Gunter has waged war with the actress for years over the health claims of products and so-called experts featured on Goop, the wellness site that Gwyneth founded in 2008. Dr Gunter calls most of them at best a waste of money, and many medically unwise. Today she is recounting the time that Goop featured a Los Angeles-based alternative medicine practitioner who aired an already debunked myth that underwired bras could give women breast cancer. ‘As a celebrity you have this incredible megaphone. Why would you give your platform to people like this?’ she sighs.
Her message to Gwyneth was not so diplomatic: ‘What do you possibly have to gain by spreading lies to women about bras causing breast cancer? Ever had a breast cancer survivor cry in your office worried that she caused her cancer by wearing bras for 20 years? Probably not. I have.’
Dr Gunter, 53, has been a practising gynaecologist for 24 years and runs a clinic in San Francisco for vulva and vaginal disorders and women with pelvic pain. It’s not just Gwyneth she has publicly taken to task. She has slammed President Trump’s views on restricting American women’s reproductive rights and access to late abortions. She is venomous towards the lobby against childhood vaccinations. She’s said celebrity trainer Tracy Anderson’s weight-loss advice encourages anorexia. In addition to her blog and posts to her 200,000 Twitter followers, she pens two New York Times health columns and is often called ‘the internet’s resident gynaecologist’.
Thus when Goop began selling £60 jade vaginal eggs for women to insert, with the suggestion that they improve internal muscle tone and ‘cultivate sexual energy’, it was Dr Gunter who stepped in. She called this ‘a load of garbage’, warning they could cause an infection. People took notice. In 2018, Goop paid $145,000 to settle a civil law suit in California for making claims not backed by scientific evidence and agreed to refund women who had bought them. When Khloé Kardashian recommended women use vitamin E oil to moisturise and ‘strengthen’ their vaginal walls, Dr Gunter responded: ‘You should absolutely not do this,’ warning that the effect of the oil on the vagina’s protective bacteria and lining is unknown.
Indeed, it is the misinformation that has long been fed to women – not only by celebrities but by what she calls ‘predatory’ doctors and pharmaceutical companies – about the care of their private parts that especially riles her. It’s the motivation for her latest book, The Vagina Bible, in which she shares her expert knowledge. ‘I want women to have the facts,’ she says. She gives detailed advice on yeast infections, HRT, supplements and vaginal surgery; busts myths about pubic hair, labia size, the G-spot.
I meet Dr Gunter while she is in the UK visiting family with her sons. Her parents are from Newcastle although she was born in Winnipeg, Canada after they emigrated in the 1950s. I was expecting her to be intimidating. Instead I find a woman with surfy hair, chatting about taking her two 15-year-old sons for tea at the Ritz. She laughs about how they’d refused to wear smart clothes and how they’d all scoffed too many cakes.
But behind this happy anecdote lies the heartbreaking story of a mother’s struggle and grief. It is, in fact, her sons Victor and Oliver who are the reason that she set out to bust dangerous health myths in the first place. The boys were born prematurely; a third brother did not survive. In the desperate years that followed she realised just how easy it is to become a victim of what she refers to as ‘malignant misinformation’.
Dr Gunter first grew interested in medicine at the age of 11 when she spent time in hospital having a kidney removed after being diagnosed with kidney disease age nine. After medical school she studied obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of Western Ontario, followed by a year-long fellowship in infectious diseases at the University of Kansas. It was in 2003, while in a teaching position at the University of Colorado Hospital in Denver, that the direction of her life was to change. She became pregnant with triplets at 36. But the joy of starting a family with her then husband Tony, an architect, soon became a living hell when her waters broke at 22 weeks, causing her to go into labour. Her first son, Aidan, was born soon after. In a cruel twist, she ended up delivering the tiny one-pound boy alone in a hospital bathroom. She knew the baby could not have survived, but that didn’t diminish the agony of losing him. ‘My son lived for three minutes then I was left as alone as a human can be,’ she wrote in a blog.
With medical help, she managed to delay delivering her other babies until a critical 26 weeks, when survival is possible. Both had chronic lung disease and began life on ventilators. Oliver was born with a heart defect and required surgery. Desperate times followed as she grieved for Aidan and tried to deal with her surviving sons’ complex health needs. She found herself scouring the internet, searching for medical advice and being drawn in by dubious products and procedures, even considering unproven stem-cell heart treatments in China. ‘You read these blogs; these people selling things tell you they understand how you feel. You are just so desperate that you are willing to believe anything, and empty your bank account for it.’
She was lucky, she says, because as a doctor she was able to track down bona fide medical specialists and get advice on the treatments she was reading about. They told her not to go near them: ‘I realised just one concise email from an expert could put it all in perspective.’ She felt there was a lack of sound medical information for parents of premature babies, so she wrote a book called The Preemie Primer. After the book, and a move to California, she began her blog.
True to form, the detail in The Vagina Bible is refreshingly forthright. Dr Gunter confronts subjects that are still taboo even in our enlightened times, from discharge and odour (‘healthy vulvas don’t smell any more than any other body part’) to how often you should wash your knickers (‘you could wear the same underwear for a week’).
Such information is probably news to most of us, but women have felt shame and anxiety about the hygiene of their private parts for millennia, Dr Gunter points out. Obsession with ‘reproductive tract purity’ dates back to a time when a woman’s worth was measured by her virginity and how many children she might bear. Now, she says, words such as ‘pure’ and ‘clean’ are being weaponised to sell feminine hygiene products. Women do not need these – they could be irritants and so damage the good bacteria, she says. (‘Your vagina is a self-cleaning oven’ is the wonderfully succinct statement that opens a chapter debunking myths about feminine hygiene.)
If women’s paranoia about cleanliness has existed for millennia, anxiety about how their normal anatomy looks is an alarming new trend, Dr Gunter tells me. ‘Pubic hair is now considered abnormal,’ she laments, even though it plays a part in sexual pleasure because each hair is attached to a nerve ending that responds to touch. In the past few years she has seen a significant increase in women worrying about the size of their labia, and seeking labiaplasty – surgical reduction. ‘Fifty per cent of women have labia minora that protrude,’ she points out in her book. ‘There is no “normal” size for labia.’
Another alarming trend, she says, is women being led to believe that their vaginas become loose after childbirth and that this will have a negative impact on sexual pleasure for their partners. There is no data to show there is truth to either belief, she says, but that hasn’t stopped a recent explosion of procedures that promise to ‘rejuvenate’ vaginas with the use of a laser wand, which is said to stimulate production of collagen. ‘We have no idea what the long-term consequences of these procedures are,’ she says. They are ‘totally understudied’. The outrage in her voice is palpable. ‘We are rushing all these products to market apparently to tighten vaginas – for what? So that men are happier? Why are we not working on making men’s penises better?’
Today’s prevalence of pornography, she says, may be partly to blame for women’s anxiety about the look of their private parts. Comparing porn to actual sex, she continues, is like comparing driving your car to a chase scene in an action movie. It’s utterly unrealistic. She also blames what she terms ‘the illusory truth effect. We all mistake repetition for accuracy. So, if you hear over and over about women having [labial or rejuvenation] surgery, you start to think, “Maybe I should have that.”’
Dr Gunter is determined to debunk a host of misapprehensions about women’s sexual pleasure, too. Firstly, the enduring myth that penetration by a man is the sure-fire way for a woman to orgasm. In fact, most women reach orgasm by clitoral stimulation, she says. She laughs that she has become obsessed by how ‘terrible’ most film sex scenes are when a woman orgasms the moment a man has entered her: ‘The mighty penis is always the money shot!’ She is serious again. ‘In sex education no one talks about how sex might involve laughing or farting. If the only place you get your information from is TV, you are going to think that if you are not climbing off the rafters three seconds after penetration there must be something wrong.’
And when it comes to the older generation, ‘a lot of studies show that sexual satisfaction for women has very little to do with what has happened to your body and everything to do with your partner,’ she says. ‘Are you in a comfortable relationship where you are not judged and you can laugh in bed? Are you having a good time? Not with someone who is, like, “Ooh, it looks as though you’ve put on five pounds”, or, “Your vagina feels loose”. Who says that? You should be dumping a man who says something like that to you!’
She clearly has high standards. She divorced nine years ago and has a ‘very new’ boyfriend. ‘I am not sure what is going on with that yet,’ she says, blushing. She’s fiercely independent. When her sons are with their father she loves to go out dancing to 80s cover bands – often by herself. ‘Other women always welcome you on to the dancefloor,’ she says. When her boys are home, they cuddle up on the sofa and watch boxsets. The boys still have health issues and she’s hugely proud of how hard they work to overcome them. Victor has mild cerebral palsy, Oliver has some heart damage, but they are ‘doing pretty well’.
‘When they were born, I could fit them in my hand, and now they can lift me up,’ she says, her eyes shining. ‘They are here because of evidence-based medicine and people who did the hardcore research on surfactants [lung drugs] and ventilators. It makes me angry to think someone could have undone all that with some snake oil, in the same way all that work on vaccines has almost been undone and people are now dying from measles. Misinformation can do real harm.’
When it comes to her own health, she keeps it simple. She runs and gave herself a Peloton exercise bike for Christmas. She wears an oestrogen patch and takes a daily progesterone pill. ‘My periods started getting irregular after 49. I had terrible hot flushes which I put up with for about six months, then I thought, “This is bullshit”.’
But she wouldn’t touch “bioidentical hormones” – ‘that’s just a marketing term. I want the ones that have been scientifically proven to be safe.’ Her parting advice: never read health websites that also sell things, least of all those promoted by Hollywood actresses. Never fall for products that aren’t backed by reputable independent research. And, for goodness’ sake, leave your vagina alone.
When it comes to Gwyneth Paltrow, the fight’s not over yet. Dr Gunter is still livid because the Goop team has called her ‘strangely confident’ about vaginal health despite her stellar qualifications and experience. And only last month they implied, not for the first time, that Goop had built her brand. ‘Like they did my medical school, residency and fellowship then helped me practise for 24 years?’ she retorted. ‘I guess they wrote all my posts and columns as well.’
The Dr. Jen Tweetment
Some of the posts that have made her a social media powerhouse.
Google is not a medical degree or board verification and if you are a nurse you should know that. https://t.co/fF0RCJZqzF
— Jennifer Gunter (@DrJenGunter) August 10, 2019
OMG some of these Instagram health influencers. The reproductive misinformation that they spout and the number of followers they have.
— Jennifer Gunter (@DrJenGunter) July 31, 2019
Appropriate confidence. Own it.
That’s my motto. https://t.co/AqPwzQ6xe6
— Jennifer Gunter (@DrJenGunter) August 6, 2019
Melted cheese is medicinal
— Jennifer Gunter (@DrJenGunter) August 8, 2019
The old wives’ tales we need to ignore
In this edited extract from her new book, Dr Gunter busts common health myths…
Widespread yeast (or Candida) can exist throughout your body
Yeast in the bloodstream – what medicine calls systemic yeast – is usually fatal without prompt, aggressive medical care. Candida is the wellness-industrial complex’s Emmanuel Goldstein [the principal enemy of the state from 1984 by George Orwell] – popping up everywhere, causing mayhem. That is just not how it works. At all.
Birth control pills cause weight gain
Several studies have shown no link between birth control pills and weight gain. One even compared women who took birth control pills with women who had a copper IUD inserted – so no exposure to hormones. Both groups gained the same amount of weight. The life situation associated with starting new contraception may be associated with weight gain, but the pill is not.
Yogurt treats yeast infection
Yogurt doesn’t contain the strains of lactobacilli that are important for vaginal health. When women do this, they are putting other bacteria in their vagina, as yogurt contains live cultures, and the consequences are unknown. It may feel soothing because it is cream-like, but it will be ineffective.
Coffee enemas have a purpose
First of all, this is a waste of good coffee. Medically speaking, to believe coffee in your rectum could treat anything is ludicrous. This myth started relatively recently. The only medical reference is in the 1944 Royal Army Medical Corps training manual during the Second World War, and it was used to keep troops awake. I’ll say! Just don’t – and run from anyone who tells you this will help.
Urine smell indicates a bladder infection
Nope. Not sure how this started, but strong-smelling urine doesn’t indicate anything, infection-wise. There are some conditions that can change how urine smells, but a bladder infection is not one of them.
You must drink 8 glasses of water daily
This originated in the 1950s when a nutritional expert estimated that the total amount of water we consume each day was equivalent to eight glasses. What everyone forgot is that calculation also included the water we take in with food – which is, in fact, how we get most of our water. Just drink when you are thirsty (with some exceptions for the elderly or people exercising or working outdoors in the heat).
The Vagina Bible by Dr Jen Gunter will be published on Tuesday by Piatkus (an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group), price £14.99. To order a copy at a 20 per cent discount until 8 September, call 0844 571 0640. P&P is free on orders over £15.