Last week, a dispute erupted between Canadian-born Dr. Jen Gunter and actor Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle site Goop, throwing pseudo-science and the role it plays in women’s health into the spotlight. In one corner there is Paltrow, a self-styled celebrity wellness guru and founder of the website featuring e-commerce, fashion, cooking and travel tips, with a side of highly dubious health-related advice. In the other corner is Gunter, an OB/GYN who is board certified in both Canada and the United States. Gunter recently landed on Goop’s Most Wanted list after crying foul over a number of the site’s most objectionable assertions and recommendations. Missed the media frenzy? Here’s what you need to know about the Gunter-Goop feud.
Dr. Gunter is hardly the first medical professional to call out Goop for faulty pseudo-science. Why is this different?
Since Goop launched in 2008, the scientific community has been casting serious side-eye on purported miracle salves like juice cleansing and vag-steaming.
In the last couple of years, though, Team Goop appears to have cranked up the quack factor, possibly after realizing that pushing the boundaries of science is good for business. In January, a post on vaginal eggs prompted almost as much outrage from MDs as it did sales of the product via Goop’s e-commerce section. Last month, the site recommended Body Vibes, which are “wearable stickers that rebalance the energy frequency in our bodies.” The post originally claimed that the stickers (a pack of 10 go for $60) were made of the same material as NASA space suits, but that part was taken down after NASA refuted Goop’s claim. One NASA representative offered this very professional opinion: “Wow. What a load of b.s.” All of which is to say that, yes, Goop has a lot of notable critics. Still, Gunter stands out because she really seems to be getting under Gwyneth’s skin.
Okay, back up. What started the scrap between Gwyneth and Dr. Gunter?
While Gunter has been calling out celebrities who spread pseudo-science (a group that includes, but is by no means limited to, Goop) for years now, this particular battle kicked off back in May when Paltrow addressed her critics, saying, “If you want to f*** with me, bring your A-game.” (According to the Hollywood Reporter, Paltrow apparently liked the new catchphrase so much, one of her friends had it printed on a bunch of matchbooks as a gift.) Gunter responded with a blog post titled, “Dear Gwyneth Paltrow, we’re not f***ing with you, we’re correcting you. XOXO Science.”
The post refutes a laundry list of Goop-propagated wisdom — that bras give you cancer, that tampons are the devil, that jade eggs belong in vaginas. In a nutshell, Gunter thinks the site is dangerous for two reasons. First, because its advice often amounts to fear mongering, which may cause readers to turn their backs on solid medical advice. (Say, using condoms to prevent STIs and pregnancy.) And second, because as a result of these sorts of “crackpot theories,” science will have to spend precious resources disproving snake oil, rather than testing legitimate hypotheses.
Does Gwyneth believe in all of the controversial methods her site recommends?
The extent to which Paltrow drinks her own (organic, all natural, latex-free) Kool-Aid is not entirely clear. A recent appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live! suggests that she is at least skeptical of some of Goop’s zanier recos: Fast forward to 1:17 in the clip below to hear her declare, “I don’t know what the f*** we talk about.”
Mostly, though, Paltrow has defended her website, which brings us to last Thursday, when the weekly Goop newsletter featured a post titled “Uncensored.” Throughout the hundreds of words dedicated to discrediting Gunter, Team Goop says they believe in asking questions, challenging conventional wisdom, investigating and (above all) empowering women to have autonomy when it comes to our own health.
But isn’t that a good thing?
It is. And it’s certainly worth considering the notion that the explosion of the wellness industry is a reflection of to how mainstream medicine is failing women. But when you offer expert advice and then neglect to take responsibility for said advice (despite claiming to “always welcome conversation”), it’s a little confusing. Imagine your doctor prescribed you medicine and then later, when the medicine didn’t work, s/he told you it was just a suggestion. The point is that while autonomy is great, so are facts, which is what Gunter argues in a glorious retort.
“Medicine is not subjective,” she writes. “There are facts and biological plausibility. Of course there are unknowns, but not in the way you present it. For example, it is fact that sea sponges contain dirt and are completely untested for menstruation. It is highly biologically plausible that sea sponges could have a significant risk of toxic shock syndrome as they may be more absorbent than tampons, may introduce more oxygen than tampons, and be impossible to clean in a way that removes the toxic shock syndrome toxin or even staph aureus. If you disagree with this information it doesn’t mean you have a different opinion it means you are choosing to be uninformed or the potential risk of being uninformed matters less to you.”
Has anyone come to Gunter’s defense? Or Goop’s for that matter?
A lot of medical professionals have come out in favour of Gunter on Twitter. Timothy Caulfield, the Canadian academic who wrote the 2015 book Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?, published a supportive (and hilarious) op-ed in The Globe and Mail. Like many Goop dissenters (Gunter included), Caulfield makes the important point that, “Goop isn’t a benevolent aggregator of health information. It is a for-profit company seeking to move product.” As for Paltrow? Her usual gaggle of Hollywood besties have remained quiet. (In fairness to Reese Witherspoon and Kate Hudson, they have their own lifestyle brands to worry about). GP’s fans have also largely been quiet – Paltrow’s tweet linking to the “Uncensored” letter has scored a measly number of likes (for a celeb tweet, anyway).
Does this mean I should stop reading Goop?
Given Goop’s track record of health-related absurdity, it’s best to take any and all medical recommendations with a giant grain of Himalayan sea salt (NB: that is an expression, not an endorsement). If you want to spend your hard-earned cash on $300 track pants or $200 breakfast smoothies, go forth in (relatively) harmless autonomy. But maybe ask a doctor before inserting anything into a body part.