My delight in the particular brazenness of Jen Gunter, M.D., began in 2017, with her first essay, "My Vagina Is Terrific, Your Opinion About It Is Not." “It started with a post on my blog about why you shouldn’t put Vicks VapoRub in your vagina,” Gunter says. “I wrote about how I once was with someone who liked to shame my body. You know how it goes: If only my hair was straight, if only my legs were thinner, if only I dressed differently, I would be the perfect person for him.”
She felt like “a walking uterus.” So she changed. Straightened her hair. Lost some weight. “Obviously it was emotionally abusive,” she says. “Then he made a comment about the smell of my vagina, and I was like, Wait a minute, I’m the actual expert here. He could shame me about my body, but he couldn’t shame me about my professional knowledge.” She broke up with him, ultimately writing about her experience in the hopes of helping other women.
That’s when the trolls came for her. “Literally the dudes came out of the woodwork. The comments were like, ‘All the men had a meeting, and we all said you have a stinky vagina.’ Honest to God. Then I got mad,” she says.
Just like that, a revolution was born: a column in the New York Times, a Twitter following over 200,000 strong, a new show called Jensplaining out later this month, and her first book, The Vagina Bible, which debuts today.
“You can’t be empowered with inaccurate information.”
At a time when American states are passing new laws to remove a woman’s right to have a say about her own body, thank goodness for Gunter, the ob-gyn who has emerged to lead a rational counter argument for women’s health. Her argument is simple (and apparently radical): A woman is the rightful master of her own domain. “Since the beginning of time, women’s bodies have been weaponized against us. Almost every culture, every society has this history—and some still do—of saying women’s bodies are dirty and toxic, and that menstrual blood is filthy. It’s an effective weapon,” she says. “There’s something really visceral about it—it makes you feel like there’s something wrong with you. This messaging has been around for so long, and the fact is we’ve had, until very recently, few women in science pushing back.”
Gunter is pushing back—hard. The Vagina Bible is part vagina myth buster, part feminist rallying cry, and all Gunter. “My mission is informed choice. I truly want every woman to be empowered about her body and the decisions she makes about her body—you can’t be empowered with inaccurate information,” she says. Recently someone sent her a link to an Instagram post on why you should steam your vagina, claiming the GOOP-approved trend could “tighten” it. “If you decide to steam your vagina based on that, then you’ve made an uninformed choice,” she says. “If, however, you understand that its harmful, there is zero health benefit, that it’s actually a derivative of a patriarchal idea—people used to believe the uterus wandered the body, I’m not kidding you, and that if you put fragrant herbs between your legs, the stupid uterus would come down to the nice smell like a sheep—if you understand all of that and decide you still want to steam your body, well, then that’s your choice.”
We talked about why knowing your body leads to better sex, how normal is different for every woman, and why women are suddenly so obsessed with discharge.
Glamour: Do you think the pattern of gaslighting women about their bodies is changing?
Jen Gunter: I think it’s slowly changing. I’ve been thinking a lot about when I went to medical school in the ’80s, how I never met a female surgeon. As women we could not act like ourselves, we had to act how the men expected us to act, and that’s not that long ago. I’ve seen more of a change in the last 5 to 10 years. When I was 18 or 19, I thought, By the time I’m 50, the patriarchy will be over, and everything will be equal. I was a teenager in the era when you could bring home the bacon and fry it up too. Which is a crock of bullshit because that means you’re going to do all the work, and no one is going to help you. I’ve been in that situation, and let me tell you, sister, isn’t that the greatest tool of the patriarchy, to make women think that that’s liberation? Doing all the fucking work?
As women, we’re always too something. As you wrote, “too wet, too loose, too gross.” How is it that our bodies cannot just exist?
Yes, and men’s bodies are always fine, right? Dudes are perfect. It’s this idea that a woman is shameful if she’s not partnered with a man. It’s like she’s a walking womb needing to reproduce. That’s how society in general makes women feel. If you don’t have a dude, there’s something wrong with you. There are obviously other pressures as well, but I think that’s why a lot of women are vulnerable to these horrible comments from men about their intimate places.
What are the most common distortions you see? Where do they come from?
People come in to see me thinking there is supposed to be this norm in women’s bodies, and there is not. Right now women seem to be really questioning their vaginal discharge. I did not notice this 20 years ago, women really, really, really worrying about it as a health barometer. Obviously, every part of your body is a health barometer, but they aren’t coming in worrying about their nose running. They’re coming in with fears about normal, healthy vaginas. I don’t know if this fear was there 20 years ago, and because nobody said the word vagina in public, women were just less likely to come and talk about it, or if this is an extension of all of the imagery that we see of naked female bodies online.
You look at these tiny undergarments and bathing suits, and maybe like only 5% of women could fit their labia into that? So if you can’t fit into it, you are going to think that maybe there is something wrong with your labia. Or if your pubic hair is sticking out, you’re going to think maybe something is wrong with your pubic hair. We’re showing images of not only impossibly thin people, but also with these body parts that are almost prepubertal—they don’t have any hair, they’re tiny, they’re tucked away. You might think that is “normal” as opposed to just one part of the spectrum. We expect that bodies can appear in all sizes and shapes, and so we should expect that genitals can appear in all sizes and shapes.
What makes women think their bodies aren’t working well? I get women who come in and the source of their distress is that they can’t possibly have any blood ever in their vagina because it grosses their (male) partner out. He’s going to freak out if he sees blood. I’m like, Then he should not be partnering with a person who has a uterus, end of discussion. If you are afraid of a couple of drops of blood, you should not be with a woman.
Sex is supposed to be messy. People fart. People burp. There are secretions everywhere. Why is his wet spot glorious, but if you have a few drops of blood, it’s a problem? There isn’t anything special about semen, it’s just a body fluid.
What’s the best thing that’s happened since you have emerged as an advocate for women’s bodies?
Honestly, the best thing is when I get a message from a woman on Facebook or a DM on Twitter when they say, “Thank you so much for writing that piece. It allowed me to advocate with my partner or talk with my doctor. I feel like you wrote that piece just for me.”
Men keep breaking up with me. They’re worried that I’m going to be too famous to have time to spend with them. It’s kind of sucky to be at that point, because I like being with someone, I like to laugh, I like having a regular sex partner.
Let’s talk about the book. Why is it important for every woman to know how her vagina works?
Because the patriarchy is invested in her not knowing, and also so she can be healthy and not worry. In medicine, it’s often hard to get the right answer. Sometimes because the science isn’t accurate, and sometimes because it’s hard to talk about. Then when you add sex or especially women’s bodies, you have this other layer of misinformation. At this time when wellness is being very predatory about women’s health, it’s important for women to have information about how their body works so women know when someone is telling them a lie.
The hard part was trying to figure out what I had thought to be true, was that true or not? There are so many things in medicine where you’re taught it, but then you wonder where that came from. Sometimes I would spend days trying to track down the original source and find out some dude said it in a textbook in 1950, and we’ve all believed it ever since. Or there are papers that have been constantly misquoted or I'd read a review and find out that’s not what the source article said. Myths perpetuate in medicine as well.
The Vagina Bible, $13 at Amazon.com
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Amy Reardon is at work on a novel. Follow her @ReardonAmy.
Originally Appeared on Glamour