Dr. Jen Gunter is perhaps most well-known as Gwyneth Paltrow’s nemesis, a scrappy women’s health expert whose blog managed to goad Paltrow’s lifestyle catalog, Goop, into issuing a lengthy defense of their original article about inserting jade eggs into one’s vagina, for health reasons. One of Goop’s experts chided her for using swear words.
Swear words are the least powerful weapon in Gunter’s arsenal; she mostly relies on facts and science to shoot down urban legends and new old wives’ tales. She’s a gynecologist and obstetrician who has been carrying on a one-woman crusade against the kind of “wellness” quackery epitomized by Goop since 2010. She’s also a science fiction and fantasy fan (her cat dressed up as a Handmaid last Halloween). She’s exactly the person we wanted to talk to about the strange overlap between magical thinking and feminism. There was some swearing.
The tagline of your blog is “Wielding the lasso of truth.” Does that make you Wonder Woman?
I loved the show growing up, and many years ago I was having a robust argument with a male colleague where I made him fess up to something (nothing bad, medical-wise, I just knew he was holding something back) and he said, “You and your damn lasso of truth,” and so it stuck with me.
I think every woman searching for the truth and trying to set their corner of the world straight is Wonder Woman.
Why did you choose to specialize in obstetrics and gynecology?
I went into OBGYN out of a place of anger. I was in medical school and everybody lecturing to me about women's health was a man. And that angered me. Not that they were bad men or bad people, and they actually were very respectful. But I just thought that was bullsh*t.
When I was 16, I was riding my 10-speed bike to the first free-standing abortion clinic in our city and picketing for women — that was always important to me, as long as I can remember. I don't remember a time not being an advocate in that way. I was very young when I was in medical school. I mean I started when I was 19. So maybe if I had been older, I would have picked something differently, but at the time I was like, "F*ck, that's terrible, I was just listening to a bunch of men telling me about the f*cking reproductive tract, that's bullsh*t. I'm gonna do that." That was probably the conversation in my head at the time.
And how did you get started in doing this sort of feminist mythbusting?
Well, I was always interested in the things women read in magazines. They would always have sort of this sameness, and I remember thinking like these are really like — like, what? What is this? Then I had my own extensive interaction with the health care system with my own children; they were born really prematurely and very ill. I started researching my own kids' health problems and I remember thinking, "God, this is horrible, how do people sort through this?" Because the top searches are usually the wrong ones with the worst information, or the good ones are hard to read, and I started really realizing how fortunate I was that I had a friend I could call at the University of Michigan and say, "Hey, I need to speak with a pediatric GI doc. Can you put me in touch with this person?" Or I called the Children's Hospital in Texas and I was able to pull these strings to get information. And what I kept finding was all the information I would get back from these experts was not the same as what was easily available.
So I set up this free blog on WordPress; I thought, “I’m gonna just start putting content out there 'cause maybe it'll help somebody.” I really started out like that — knapsack on my back, walking off to change the world one post at a time.
And when you started off with your knapsack over your shoulder to climb Mount Ignorance, did you realize how big the mountain was?
No idea. No idea. For example, I had no idea that some people believe that AIDS is a construct of Big Pharma. And look, I'm no fan of Big Pharma. But at least if I walk into any pharmaceutical industry manufacturing plant, I would probably be able to prove that what they're making is what they're making, right? And they'd be shut down if it weren't.
Big Natural doesn't have to do any of that. They can just package whatever the f*ck they want, it could be some dirt they scooped up off the ground. You don't know. And so the more I started realizing like what people believe and what they're told, the more I realized this Mount Ignorance is really 20 Everests.
I’ve argued that feminism is inherently science fictional — you have to be able to lift the weight of disbelief, to imagine a different future.
I don't know about that. I think feminism is a necessary evolution.
What about the science fiction-y idea that women's bodies are really cool machines, capable of doing cool stuff?
Well, every organ does cool things, and I think that if you looked at how the eye works you'd be like, “Holy Moses, that is so cool!” Or how smell works or taste works. I don't think that the female reproductive system is any cooler or different than anything else about the body. I mean, everything about it is so amazing, to me.
But I understand the impulse to think of the female body as mysterious and kind of magical. I think a lot of women who believe in “alternative medicine” would say that they’re feminists.
Well, keeping women uninformed about their bodies in any way possible does not serve women. It serves the patriarchy. It's infantilizing women. You're giving people the absence of knowledge, you're actually making them less informed about their body and you're dressing it up as empowerment, as if The Mists of Avalon were the zenith of medical care.
I'm a huge Mists of Avalon fan, but I get your point.
I love it. It's honestly the greatest book in the world, but I don't think that you want the science of your reproductive tract to be based on Arthurian legend, if you know what I'm saying.
What are some of the weirdest facts that you found people believing about women's bodies and women's health?
The idea that there's some type of mystical female knowledge that comes from your reproductive organs.
You're saying that's not so?
I don't know about you, but my knowledge comes from my brain.
The thing about the myth of "alternative medicine" for women — the kind of thing Gwyneth Paltrow perpetuates — is that it's such a restrictive view of what womanhood is.
I treat women with chronic pain, so I see the consequences of all kinds of Hail Marys done to keep women alive. So if you're saying that the key to your womanhood comes from your vagina, then what are you saying to a woman who's had to have her vagina irradiated for cancer? What about a woman who's born without a vagina? There are medical conditions where that happens. Is she a woman? A trans person? Or when a woman becomes menopausal, is she no longer a woman? There are as many colors as there are in the rainbow as that's how many types of women there are. And to boil it down to some kind of sacred knowledge, again, is just -- that to me is a ludicrous myth, that — what does that even mean? That's like a word salad.
What myth about women's bodies do you find the most annoying?
Oh, “the womb needs cleansing.”
That grates on me in so many ways. First of all, I hate the word womb. I hate it. I don't know why. I hate it. I just cannot stand the word. Every time I hear the word womb, it's like fingernails on a f*cking chalkboard. I hate that word. Always have hated it, always. And “the womb needs cleansing” covers so many patriarchal myths, menstrual myths, and people still believe it — not even that the vagina needs cleaning but the womb needs cleaning, that somehow like menstrual blood is filled with toxins — 'cause that covers period-shaming, too. I’d put that on my gravestone: "No, your f*cking womb does not f*cking need cleansing."