If anyone is qualified to write The Vagina Bible, it’s Dr. Jen Gunter.
Born and raised in Winnipeg, the San Francisco-based obstetrician and gynecologist has long been a lighthouse for women trying to navigate a churning sea of myths, misinformation and outright lies about their bodies.
In addition to her medical practice, Gunter, 53, is what you’d call "extremely online"; she’s been called everything from Twitter’s resident gynecologist to the Internet’s OB/GYN, wielding her "lasso of truth" everywhere from her blog to her pair of columns for the New York Times.
Her new book out today in Canada, The Vagina Bible: The Vulva and the Vagina — Separating the Myth From the Medicine, is the logical extension of that work.
"I had a couple of days in a row where there must have been six or seven patients where I would say the same thing over and over again," she says over the phone from San Francisco. "Like, ‘no you shouldn’t put garlic in your vagina,’ or ‘no, you shouldn’t put yogurt in your vagina.’ ‘This is how you’d know you if had a yeast infection. The symptoms you have are not symptoms of a yeast infection.’ It was just back to back. And every single patient said to me, ‘How did I not know this?’"
Gunter understands how they do not know this. We live in an era in which misinformation is rampant, and women’s bodies are still burdened by shame and societal pressure. She never blames patients for not having the facts, nor for getting bad information online.
"But, I was like, ‘How do we combat bad headlines, and clickbait and Instagram influencers?’ I was looking around my office and it struck me: ‘Dammit, women need a textbook!’ They need a textbook on themselves, so when it’s three o’clock in the morning and they’re like, ‘Oh my god, what’s going on?’ they can look things up," she says.
So, Gunter wrote one herself. The Vagina Bible is an accessible, practical, factual guide, designed for any woman who has ever found herself in the depths of an internet rabbit hole, trying to understand her body. Like its author, it talks to women, not down at them. And best of all, it’s not trying to sell us anything.
"Looking at the broad range of medical books that were sold, most of them are not practical," she says. "They are all capitalizing on fear of leptins, or fear of wheat or pushing gluten free. They’re fad-y. I don’t think health should be a trendy thing, it should be a constant. And then when you have the vagina or vulva, women’s body parts have been imbued with shame since the beginning of time. That’s how the patriarchy controls women. ‘Your parts are dirty.’ So, what, my vagina’s dirty and your erection isn’t? I’m sorry, what? I do not accept that.
"I probably wouldn’t have lived long in ancient days."
That approachable wit has helped earn her over 200,000 followers (and counting) on Twitter, and it translates well to screen, too. This week will also see the launch of Gunter’s new CBC docseries Jensplaining, which is available via the CBC Gem streaming service as of Aug. 23. Inspired by her popular blog, the 10-part series will educate on women’s health while taking down stubborn health and beauty myths, from jade eggs to coffee enemas.
"It’s awesome: Canadian tax dollars are going to make people ‘cliterate,’" she says with a laugh.
The wellness industrial complex, with its supplements, cleanses and detoxes — sold to women by celebrities and Instagram influencers alike — is a particular source of frustration for Gunter, especially since it often operates under the guise of empowerment.
"It’s really fascinating faux feminism. I think we really have to call it out for what it is. They’re grifting off of feminist talking points, but as soon as you look below the surface, it’s not that at all. The most unfeminist thing is to give women misinformation about their bodies. Feminism, to me, is saying, ‘Here is the accurate information. If you understood it and you want to make a choice with your body, great.’ That’s an empowered decision. It’s the opposite to give people lies and then ask them to make a choice," she says.
Gunter gets why women who are frustrated with the medical system may turn to wellness for answers.
"The problem is the wellness industrial complex has capitalized on the gaps in medicine. I’m the first to admit medicine has problems. They recognize that people are missing, in medicine, empathy and communication and authenticity. Wellness offers the illusion of authenticity. There’s so much cultural appropriation that goes on in wellness, the exoticism of other cultures, and it’s quite frightening to see it happen so much without being called out," she says.
"The words they use are the exact words the patriarchy uses: pure, clean, natural. Those are words that were used to weaponize women’s bodies." - Dr. Jen Gunter
And not unlike diet culture, wellness culture sits at the intersection between capitalism and patriarchy, profiting off the very fears and insecurities it stokes.
"The words they use are the exact words the patriarchy uses: pure, clean, natural," Gunter says. "Those are words that were used to weaponize women’s bodies. Like, if you weren’t pure, you weren’t a virgin, and you couldn’t get married. Women’s worth was, if your hymen was broken you were worth nothing, and then as soon as it was broken, you better be able to pop out a bunch of kids and shut up about it, and then go die.
"They’re almost in our DNA to worry about: pure, clean, natural."
Posted: 11/08/2017 6:47 PMFrom Aug. 11, 2017: You could say Dr. Jen Gunter came to Winnipeg to detox.
Which brings us to Goop. You may know Dr. Gunter’s name from her viral, take-no-prisoners critiques of the Gwyneth Paltrow lifestyle website that lamentably made shoving $65 jade eggs up your hoo-ha and vaginal steaming a thing. Goop frequently teams up with doctors and naturopaths who hold dangerous beliefs, including one who claimed depression can be treated with daily coffee enemas.
It doesn’t bother Gunter if people find her via the work she’s done fact-checking Goop, but she’d love to move on.
"I’ll be really honest: it does feel, for me, like I’m punching down at this point. I personally think everything they do health-wise is a joke. It really is. I think using your celebrity to sell supplements is disgusting. Study after study comes out showing that these kinds of supplements can’t help people and may actually hurt them. I don’t actually see their health brand growing. I think people are on to them, so I kind of feel like my work is done," she says.
Besides, she’s got other fish to fry. These days, her attention is focused on the politicians in her country who are attempting to roll back reproductive rights with "medically illiterate abortion laws," as she put it in the NYT.
She’s tireless on Twitter, expertly shutting down misinformation about abortion.
I ask her if she ever feels burned out. Her answer is thoughtful.
"I think about how long it took women fighting to get the vote, and they didn’t give up. I think about women fighting to get property rights, and they didn’t give up. And I think about how hard it must have been for all these women to have done all this amazing work to become pilots or scientists against all the odds in the ‘20s and ‘30s when everyone was telling them they couldn’t do it. I just think about all these strong women in history who just didn’t give up," she says.
"I just think there’s a lot of women who fought harder battles, and I have my privilege because they did what they did. I’m not only fighting because it’s super important for me right now and I can’t stand lies about bodies, but I want to show the next generation of women that these are the words that you can use, and don’t let people shut you down, and things are worth fighting for."
She also wants to empower women to advocate for themselves and speak openly about their bodies, especially in the doctor’s office.
"If you don’t understand what’s being explained to you, ask to have it explained," Gunter says. "Speak up if it’s not sitting right with you, and try to explain why: it’s not making sense scientifically, you don’t want to take a pill, whatever the reason is. Look up things online, but be careful where you go. The best place to start for medical information is not Google, it’s the medical professional society that would be in charge of that medical specialty. So, if you have a women’s health concern related to uterus, vagina, ovaries, in Canada, go to the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada. They have a fantastic website, and all the information is curated by board-certified ob-gyns. They are free of bias, these are people who want to do the right thing for you."
Dr. Jen Gunter will be coming to the West End Cultural Centre on Sept. 26 for a Winnipeg book launch, hosted by Free Press columnist Jen Zoratti. Tickets are $40 and include admission for two and a copy of the book. They may be purchased at McNally Robinson Booksellers at Grant Park (204-475-0483), The Forks (204-615-7868), in person, over the phone, or online.
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.
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