'Weaponising women's bodies is profitable' - Dr Jen Gunter on battling the body-shaming industry
The world's most famous - and outspoken - gynaecologist Dr Jennifer Gunter talks to Chrissie Russell about the 'vagenda', Gwyneth Paltrow and jade eggs.
Everyone has their favourite thing to do in a museum. Some people like to make a beeline for the latest touring exhibition, others always head for their most loved historical era, be that gazing on mummies from ancient Egypt or Bronze Age torcs.
Dr Jen Gunter likes to prowl the premises hunting for female pubic hair and labia. "I'm obsessed!" she laughs. "Every time I go to a museum, I'm running around looking for ancient Greek statues to see if the women have pubic hair or labia.
My kids are like 'please, stop', they know what I'm doing and they're 16-year-old boys. They're like: 'Mom, can we NOT be on the hunt for labia today? Can we please just enjoy the museum?'. (She admits there's similar eye-rolling that goes on with her sons when she insists on counting the seconds between penetration and female orgasm while they're watching Game of Thrones together.)
But back to those statues. Once you start looking - and I guarantee, the next time you're in a museum you WILL look - you'll quickly discover that a representation of a normal female body, one complete with hair and labia, doesn't exist. The ancient Greeks were pedalling misinformation about the female anatomy and, disappointingly, it's still going on today. If anything, it's got worse.
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Various studies have revealed a multitude of concerning statistics: 50pc of women don't know what a 'normal' vagina looks like, two thirds of women are too embarrassed to say the word 'vagina' to their doctor and, in a recent Refinery29 poll, half of all respondents said they had concerns about the appearance of their vulva.
From 2015 to 2016 there was a 39pc increase in labiaplasty surgery while, on the back of spurious health advice, increasing numbers of women are inserting a number of potentially harmful products into their vaginas: sea sponges, knitted tampons and jade eggs (oh my).
The world of women's health is a pretty dark place full of lies, fear and shame.
Enter Dr Jen Gunter.
After five years of medical training and 25 years of caring for women with vulva and vaginal conditions, the Canadian gynaecologist has seen it all, heard it all and had enough.
"I was just getting really tired of all the myths," she explains. "I started thinking about how we get health information and how the internet can send us down rabbit holes and you don't know if you're getting misinformation or disinformation and I decided women need a goddamn textbook and I'm going to write it. The vaccination against misinformation is facts - right?"
And written it she has. Spanning more than 400 pages, The Vagina Bible: The Vulva and the Vagina - Separating the Myth from the Medicine, covers everything from tampons and discharge to sex and whether you can make sourdough from vaginal yeast (spoiler: No, you can't and don't try it). You'll be stunned there's so much you never knew... and need to know.
The book is aimed at people with a vagina, from the start declaring: "No woman has every benefited by learning less about her body." It begins with an anatomy lesson but there's no mistaking it for a run-of-the-mill medical textbook.
Gunter regularly gets referred to online as 'the angry gynaecologist' but I defy any women to get reading about her 'history of mansplaining in medicine' and the multimillion feminine freshness industry built on vaginal shame and not get angry too.
"We scare so many women about things based on purity myths," Gunter tells me. "Weaponising women's bodies is profitable. Telling women that there's something wrong with their vulvas and vaginas is profitable. Keeping women ashamed of their bodies, that their bodies aren't good enough, it makes money."
I tell her it's hard to imagine a book covering such a wealth of information being written about the penis.
"The whole world is a penis book - right?" she says darkly. "Every time I see a product designed for the vagina, that's nothing medical, I take that product and apply it to the penis and ask would that ever happen? Would we tell men to glue - to GLUE, right? - gems on to their penis? Would we tell men to make their penises smaller so they look better in yoga pants?"
Gunter has a habit of punctuating her speech with a 'right?' But it acts more as a for of emphasis for the point she's making rather than as a quest for approbation.
Our interview takes place over the phone, me in Ireland and her in the San Francisco Bay area where she's lived since moving from Canada in the late 1990s. As the phone is ringing, I'm seized by a sudden concern over whether to address her as 'Jen' or 'Dr Gunter' (I know society's tendency to strip female physicians of their title is a personal bugbear so I opt for the latter, even though, as one of her 239,800 Twitter followers, I firmly think of her as 'Jen'). But there's another name I'm concerned about mentioning.
In 2017 Gunter came to many people's attention thanks to her open letter to actress Gwyneth Paltrow decrying the Goop founder's endorsement of putting jade eggs in the vagina as "the biggest load of garbage I have read on your site since vaginal steaming".
Two years on, the Paltrow feud is still a lot of people's association for Gunter, but would she rather move on? "I've thought a lot about that and at first I was like, 'oh for goodness sake....'," says Gunter. "But then I thought, do you know what, I don't care how people find me, I just want them to find the truth. And if an article about Gwyneth Paltrow mentions me fact checking her and they check me out, well, I'm fine with that."
Increasingly we seem to be living in a world of 'alternate facts'. Where a growing distrust of conventional medicine and conspiracy theories around the role of 'Big Pharma' is driving an anti-vax movement and a trend towards cleanses and 'miracle cures' touted by dubious 'wellness' gurus and websites like Goop. Gunter feels there are several reasons behind the often problematic relationship between public and science. The internet has played its part.
"Now everybody thinks they can be an expert," says Gunter. "They think 'Oh, why do I need a travel agent? I can book my own flights!' Well, that only works for some things. In medicine we have this important idea of informed consent.
But if you're not getting accurate information then it's very hard to have informed consent. And the problem with the internet is that you don't know the quality of the information you're getting. The first things that come up in a search engine are almost never going to be the most accurate, they're going to be the most popular."
Then there's the fact that the people who know the most are almost always the ones most aware of the gaps in their knowledge while those who know very little tend to believe they know it all.
"I think often in medicine, doctors are afraid to say something is '100pc', they're afraid to use words like 'lies'," explains Gunter. "Well I'm 100pc sure that Gwyneth Paltrow saying you can balance your hormones by putting a honk of jade in your vagina is a lie.
"Sometimes there ARE 'yes' or 'no' answers. Vaccines don't cause autism. And I think we [doctors] need to have more confidence, when it's appropriate, in the answers because people want confidence. When I'm flying, I don't want my pilot to say 'oh the turbulence is kind of bad but I hope we're going to be OK because sometimes this works out badly but most of the time it doesn't'. I don't want to hear that! I want to hear he knows how to fly the f***ing plane!"
Her TV show, Jensplaining, runs in Canada and she's got used to people recognising her on flights - and using the opportunity to ask her questions about their genitals. "On one hand I'm thrilled people ask me," she laughs. "But at the same time, I'm not their GP, I haven't seen their chart..." She's quick to dismiss any notion that she's a bona fide celebrity. "I live in an area where there's a number of super celebrities, I'm nobody!" she insists. "I saw George Lucas the other day at the Department of Motor Vehicles." Maybe, but I bet no one approaches him to ask about their vaginal itch...
She's been asked to go into politics and it's something she hasn't ruled out. "I don't understand politics but maybe it needs a new paradigm," she laughs. "Maybe it needs to be shaken up Jen Gunter style. I would take no prisoners."
A second book is already in the pipeline. "It's called Menopause Manifesto and it's coming out in spring 2020," reveals Gunter. "Because spring is when we should talk about menopause, not any of that winter sh*t, it's the next phase of your life -right? She's on HRT. "I always say I was cool when I was six and I didn't have any oestrogen, I was cool when I was 26 and I had oestrogen, and I'm 53 now, I have pharmaceutical oestrogen and I'm still cool!"
Setting the vagenda straight
⬤ The part of your body that touches your underwear is the vulva; anything inside is the vagina and the vestibule is in between.
⬤ The vagina typically produces 1-3ml of discharge in 24 hours, but up to 4ml is normal.
⬤ Only one third of women are capable of achieving orgasm with penile penetration alone.
⬤ The vagina is self-cleaning. You do not need to douche, steam, spray or use fragranced wipes. "My hope is that if you are someone who uses these products I can convince you to give them up," says Gunter.
⬤ Sexual intercourse close to a due date in pregnancy will not trigger labour. "The idea that a penis is mighty enough to bring on labour is, to be honest, a bit eye rolling."
⬤ Removing pubic hair does not improve cleanliness and there's emerging data suggesting an increased risk of infections like HPV and herpes.
⬤ There is no 'normal' size for labia; 50pc of women have labia minora that protrude beyond the labia majora and yet 75pc of women built this way think it's abnormal. "Before considering labial reduction surgery, it is important to remember that the labia minora are sexually responsive structures...reducing the labia should be considered the exact same thing as surgically reducing the size of the penis."