One of the speakers said love cured her cancer, but neglected to say shed also had chemotherapy: Gunter on Paltrows 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 womens 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. Its predatory. Its 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 wasnt 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 had just been made illegal; the hospitals 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 shed have to defend herself if shed 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 shed see ripples relating to womens 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 well see if we can fix it. The operations my sons had when they were babies were a lesson that theres just some things in medicine they dont have answers for yet. Or, as she realised: There are no miracles, theres 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 thats a big fault of medicine. When I trained, we were taught that you dont 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 arent enough and Gunters 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 Goops fairy tales, I thought: Ill 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. Its one of the core beliefs of the patriarchy. That women are dirty inside. And yet Goop presents this as female empowerment? In Hippocratess 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. Its in so many cultures, this belief that the uterus is toxic. I couldnt believe it was now being presented as female empowerment. Its bad feminism. And its 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 isnt 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 shed 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.
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, its so insulting to anybody whos 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, were 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 Goops 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 shes 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. Its also about recognising the fact that the patriarchy has told them their emotions arent valid. Like: you shouldnt cry when youre mad. I think Goop telling women that fear causes illness, that your emotions control you, preys on the societal belief that its wrong to show emotion.
Would she like to sit down with Paltrow one day, have a conversation about, say, weaponising womens fears about femininity? No, I dont think Id 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 its a grift, or shes a true believer. As a feminist businesswoman shes claimed the right to try out being a reporter, and then, try out being a doctor. It doesnt work like that.
Gunter smiles thinly. But, you know, shes 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. Its 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, were becoming more aware of it now. And I think were close to breaking through.
She is veering away from Goop, partly because shes concentrating on things she sees as more important, like keeping abortion legal (Pulling fetal skulls out of abdomens after clandestine abortions isnt 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 vaginaThe sprig. Stuffed up the vagina each night for three to four nights to induce a period. Look, I dont 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 yoniThe 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 gainThis 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 infertilityNope, 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 waterThe 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. ITS 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 flushesSometimes 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 infectionsIt doesnt 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 enemasDear God, no. People, even some doctors, promote this to treat depression! I. Just. Cant. Even. Medically speaking, to believe coffee in your rectum could treat anything is ludicrous. I mean, why doesnt drinking it have the same effect? It is a rabbit hole of epic proportions.
Steaming the vaginaThis 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 its a defining characteristic of the patriarchy. So telling women this exists is promoting a patriarchal idea.
Final thoughtsPower and health are linked. You cant be an empowered patient and get the health outcomes you want with inaccurate information and half-truths. Ive 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 Im done with how they negatively affect and weaponise womens 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. Thats my vagenda.
The Vagina Bible by Dr Jennifer Gunter (Little Brown, 14.99) is out now. Buy it for 13.19 from guardianbookshop.com
Fashion credits Styling by Bemi Shaw; shirt by equipmentfr.com; jeans by currentelliott.com; jacket Jens own; hair and makeup by Neusa Neves at Terri Manduca using Nars cosmetics and Aveda haircare
This article contains affiliate links, which means we may earn a small commission if a reader clicks through and makes a purchase. All our journalism is independent and is in no way influenced by any advertiser or commercial initiative. By clicking on an affiliate link, you accept that third-party cookies will be set. More information.