Meet the doctor taking on Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop
Physician Jen Gunter counters vaginal steaming advice given by star’s wellness brand.
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When Dr. Jen Gunter had downtime as a medical resident in the ’90s, she’d scan celebrity tabloids scattered around the hospital’s waiting rooms.
She wasn’t looking for Hollywood gossip. The back pages of those magazines are filled with diet tips and health trends.
“That’s when I got interested in the whole idea of pop culture and medicine and how important that was. You’d read about this stuff and then sure enough, a couple months later, people were asking you about it,” the Winnipeg-born Gunter said.
Gunter, now 50 and practising in the U.S., didn’t know then her career as an ob-gyn would intersect with celebrity culture and especially Gwyneth Paltrow, who has refashioned herself into an alternative health guru through her wellness company Goop.
In June, a headline on the cover of In Touch Weekly screamed: “Goop Under Fire: Doc Slams Gwyneth’s Dangerous Advice” alongside stories about Tom Cruise and one of the Kardashians. Inside, Gunter blasted the actress for promoting the myths that bras cause breast cancer, tomatoes cause obesity and condoms are carcinogenic.
Last week, Paltrow tweeted out a rebuttal to the increasing criticism of Goop’s pseudo-medical coverage and alternative health therapies, specifically mentioning Gunter. “Since her first post, she has been taking advantage of the attention and issuing attacks to build her personal platform — ridiculing the women who might read our site in the process,” the Goop.com post read, in part.” A letter from a Goop-associated doctor also criticized Gunter’s use of the “F-bomb.”
Two decades ago, Paltrow was still an actress and magazines were full of stories about the grapefruit diet and breast implants. Today, Paltrow sells vitamins and promotes something called Moon Dust. Gunter reads Goop in an effort to dismantle some of the more out-there claims. She has amassed 47,000 Twitter followers and 6,100 followers of her blog. After the Goop salvo, she wrote her own rebuttal — the spat was covered in mainstream news — and collected thousands more.
The posts are pithy, but the intention is serious.
“Dear Gwyneth Paltrow, we’re not f---ing with you, we’re correcting you, XOXO Science,” reads a post from May, a summary of many “crackpot theories” that appear on Goop. Some of the most widely ridiculed Goop-sanctioned strategies include the use of jade eggs for better sex, and vaginal steaming.
“I see the consequences of women doing harmful things they read about online,” Gunter said. “It breaks my heart when I hear people tell me about all the useless therapies they’ve wasted their money on.”
In response to criticism from Gunter and others, Goop sent a statement to Torstar News Service in June that says, in part: “We have a disclaimer on the bottom of every article that states the purpose is to highlight alternative studies and induce conversation. It’s not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.”
Gunter attended medical school at the University of Manitoba and completed her residency at Western University. In 2005, she and her family moved to California, where she now practises in the San Francisco Bay Area. Gunter has been blogging about health and evidence-based medicine for seven years, at first on mainstream topics such as vaccine myths, weight loss and reproductive rights. Two years ago, someone sent her the vaginal steaming article.
Gunter’s area of expertise is vaginal health. She fired off a blog post about the risks. “Ms. Paltrow recommends a V-steam,” she wrote. “My response: Don’t.” It went viral, seen 234,217 times in the month it was published, and shared over 10,000 times on Facebook.
“The Goop stuff really caught on, I guess, because there weren’t really any doctors countering it,” she said. “There’s all these people online talking about health but there’s very little good information from physicians that patients can turn to.”
Gunter knows that firsthand, in personal and dramatic way. In 2003, her twin sons were born 14 weeks premature. They were on oxygen for a year and required multiple surgeries. They would have been triplets: a third son did not survive. During those days as a patient and parent, she searched online for good advice but found websites advocating treatments she knew were unproven or inappropriate for her kids’ conditions.
“I was really horrified by what was online. Fortunately, I knew how to double-check things and who to ask, but I kept thinking about how other people navigate it.”
Her blog isn’t all Goop, all the time. She debunks all kinds of health myths and weighs in on policies affecting women’s health. (“I was blogging about pseudo-science long before Paltrow first squatted over a pot of steaming allergens and leveraged her celebrity to draw attention to her website,” she wrote in July.) In June, she attempted a Goop-approved detox smoothie and wrote about its resulting bloat and mysterious ingredients. There were a lot of expletives.
Gunter maintains an active practice and runs a women’s health clinic. She tweets when her kids are at piano lessons and when walking down the hill during a running workout. Some people watch TV for two hours a day, she said. Gunter scans social media and reads up on health trends.
“You can’t read about this stuff in medical journals,” she said.
Timothy Caulfield, who wrote the 2015 book Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? When Celebrity Culture and Science Clash, considers Gunter a friend and ally. He recently filmed an episode of his upcoming documentary TV show, called A User’s Guide to Cheating Death, at Gunter’s home. They discussed the notorious vaginal steaming, among other topics.
In an emerging post-fact world, “Gwyneth brought us together,” said Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy and University of Alberta professor.
“When I started doing this years ago, I thought it was important, but I had no idea how important it was going to become,” he said. He publicly defended Gunter in an op-ed in the Globe and Mail over the weekend — federal Minister of Health Jane Philpott tweeted it, adding “Thankful for Canadian scientists, health researchers, & #fakenews debunkers, including @CaulfieldTim @DrJenGunter & many more. #GoScience!”
In June, Gunter was asked to remove a blog post based on a tweet from an attendee of a recent Goop wellness summit. Until then, she believed the people running Goop were oblivious to her musings. Not anymore.
“If women seeking wellness is a trend, I’d say that it’s a positive one, particularly in a country facing diabetes, obesity, chronic disease, and narcotic-related death epidemics of epic proportions,” Dr. Aviva Romm, author of Botanical Medicine for Women’s Health and The Adrenal Thyroid Revolution, wrote on the Goop website as part of Paltrow’s response to criticism in July.
“Further, let’s not forget that many common medical practices that were not too long ago considered wellness trends, at best, unscientific bunk, or at worst, dangerous, are now widely incorporated into conventional patient care.”
Still, Gunter believes in correcting what she sees as bad science.
“Fighting misinformation is really hard,” Gunter said. “I’m just trying to get out there and swing the bat, I guess.”
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