Dr. Jen Gunter didn’t want to keep criticizing Goop. “She is veering away from Goop, partly because she’s concentrating on things she sees as more important,” a September 2019 interview with the author and OB/GYN in The Guardian reads. “Gunter wants to spend her time helping women understand their bodies, bringing down the patriarchy, and finishing her lunch. In no particular order.” But last week, Gunter learned via a New York Times piece about the firing of longtime Elle magazine advice columnist E. Jean Carroll that a profile about Gunter that was set to be published in the magazine alongside the launch of her book The Vagina Bible: The Vulva and the Vagina: Separating the Myth from the Medicine was killed. Why? Because “Last winter, a profile of Dr. Jen Gunter, the ob-gyn (and New York Times columnist) who has been a critic of Gwyneth Paltrow and Goop, was killed after top editors expressed concern that it might upset Ms. Paltrow and her publicist Stephen Huvane, who represents a variety of celebrity clients, according to three former staffers.”
Gunter tweeted a screenshot of the NYT piece (which notes that Paltrow appeared on a November 2019 Elle cover) and wrote, “The profile in @ellemagazine was a big deal for me. Being in print says a lot and this would have been right before The Vagina Bible came out. Something I am sure Paltrow and @goop understood only too well,” she wrote. ‘Cut for space’ always felt fishy.” In short: Gunter learned last week that a piece that was scheduled to run when The Vagina Bible came out (last August) was killed for a different reason (the magazine not wanting to offend Paltrow) than the official one Elle gave her (lack of space). Gunter didn’t want to build a career out of criticizing Goop, but Goop didn’t stop giving Gunter reason to be critical. Instead, its reach and impact just kept spreading.
Despite being hit with a $145,000 lawsuit for false claims about the health benefits of using jade eggs vaginally, the brand—backed by Paltrow, who has said she simply “doesn’t read the negative press”—has continued to expand. As a cornerstone of the wellness–as–million-dollar-lifestyle-brand and the exemplar of the commercialization of self-care and wellness, Goop has grown over the past decade-plus into a multiplatform empire whose editorial arm, in-person events, online shop, and podcast now includes a six-part Netflix series focused on what Paltrow calls the “optimization of self.” Goop is what most celebrity-backed brands aspire to be given its reach and impact, and it’s increasingly becoming a household name. “I have learned so much,” Paltrow said at Vanity Fair’s recent “New Establishment” summit. “And so much by making such grave mistakes that have cost millions of dollars.”
These mistakes have cost more than money. They’ve come with substantial criticism, and one of Goop’s best-known critics is Gunter herself. In 2015, Goop published a piece titled, “Could There Possibly Be a Link Between Underwire Bras and Breast Cancer??” Gunter was swift to respond: “That’s a pretty offensive myth,” she told Vox in an interview. “I had a friend who’s had breast cancer and she sent me the article. And I thought, ‘This is terrible, I gotta write about this!’ And then the person who wrote the piece for Goop accused me of being in the pocket of big lingerie. I’m like, ‘What does that even mean?!’ And so the Gunter-versus-Goop battle began. As two people with influence in a similar space—that of women’s bodies, healthcare, and sexual wellness—it’s unsurprising that Gunter and Paltrow would clash.
Gunter uses her social- edia platform to talk about vaginal healthcare, ranging from what pads to use to how to talk about your vagina; Paltrow uses Goop to sell her favorite menstrual supplies and offer advice on learning to love your vagina and advocate for your own pleasure. Where they part ways is, simply put, at the intersection of consumerism and misinformation. In 2017, Gunter wrote an open letter to Goop. Titled “Dear Gwyneth Paltrow, I’m a GYN and your vaginal jade eggs are a bad idea,” the letter expressed frustration with Goop’s prioritization of feel-good woo over scientific facts. “I’ve been reading all about the jade eggs you are selling on Goop for $55-66 a pop,” Gunter wrote, referring to Goop’s recommendation of vaginally inserted jade and rose-quartz eggs that, it claimed, had benefits including regulating menstrual cycles and improving your sex life. “I read the post on GOOP and all I can tell you is it is the biggest load of garbage I have read on your site since vaginal steaming. It’s even worse than claiming bras cause cancer. But hey, you aren’t one to let facts get in the way of profiting from snake oil.”
The understandably harsh post wraps up with a note to Paltrow’s audience: “The only thing your post got right is to check with your doctor before using one. So let me give you some free advice, don’t use vaginal jade eggs.” Goop has responded to Gunter directly. An undated piece in its wellness vertical is titled, “A Note From Dr. Steven Gundry;” in it, Gundry—who has been widely criticized by other medical professionals as a fear mongering peddler of supplements—writes, “I have read Dr. Jennifer Gunter’s recent diatribe online about some of Goop’s advice, and since one of my recommendations was mentioned, and my credentials and motives were brought into question, I believe I have the right and duty to respond.” The piece, which begins with an insult to Dr. Gunter’s parenting abilities (“A very wise Professor of Surgery at the University of Michigan once instructed me to never write anything that my mother or child wouldn’t be proud to read. I hope, for the sake of your mother and child, that a re-reading of your article fails his test, and following his sage advice, that you will remove it.”) follows with paragraphs explaining Gundry’s own qualifications, and then calling Gunter’s piece a “diatribe” and pushing back at the idea that Goop’s version of wellness is laden with inaccuracies.
“My hope for you,” the piece ends, “if you read my book, is you’ll read it with your eyes wide open! If not, then discourse begins and ends with civility. Think about it. If that still doesn’t work, go show your article to your mother and kids. Really.” While much of the message is simply true to Goop’s voice, with chatty, relatable language throughout (“I won’t bore you,” it says, along with “Not good enough for you?” and “Wow, there are a lot of really stupid cultures out there who go to such trouble over some harmless little proteins called lectins, huh?”) it’s also true that the language itself is biting, unnecessary zeroing in on Gunter’s motherhood.
It’s interesting given that Gunter is far from the only figure to criticize Goop. Beyond the previously mentioned lawsuit, Timothy Caulfield’s wrote an entire book about Goop, titled, Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything, and Britain’s National Health Service chief executive Simon Stephens has warned against Goop’s “dubious” claims, saying “Her brand peddles psychic vampire repellent, says chemical sunscreen is a bad idea, and promotes colonic irrigation and DIY coffee enema machines, despite them carrying considerable risks to health….While the term ‘fake news’ makes most people think about politics, people’s natural concern for their health, and particularly about that of their loved ones, makes this particularly fertile ground for quacks, charlatans and cranks.”
Paltrow may not be new to criticism, but that doesn’t mean she takes it well. “We think that that’s all clickbait and bullshit. People are able to criticise us now in opportunistic ways. It’s a cheap and easy way to try and drive traffic to these sites,” Paltrow told Mashable in an interview earlier this month. “Some of the things we talk about on Goop might be an emerging modality and that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have value. It might just mean it doesn’t have a double-blind study behind it, but it may be making people feel better and closer to themselves.” In an interview published on Elle Canada’s site in August 2019, Gunter explains why she thinks there’s so much mystery and misinformation surrounding women’s health online. “Weaponizing women’s bodies is profitable. It’s profitable politically, it’s profitable for selling products, it’s profitable in page clicks. Historically, women’s bodies have been weaponized. We were commodities—how well could we reproduce? What’s different now is that I’m seeing women profit from misinformation for women as well.”
It’s unsurprising that Paltrow’s publicist wouldn’t want her to see such a statement from someone who has been critical of Goop in the past. But it’s disappointing to see Elle, a magazine for and by women, mask such an important conversation and choose maintaining access to Paltrow and other celebrities a celebrity over something as important as healthcare. Why are we prioritizing lies over truth, especially when it comes to health? It might be a question with an easy answer (read: money), but it’s a question for Elle to sit with, and a question for us all to keep in mind as we turn to women’s media for answers and support, and trust them to keep us in mind as they write those answers.