This week in medical sexism
Perhaps the biggest news in women’s healthcare this week is that Gwyneth Paltrow’s questionable women’s lifestyle brand Goop has been reported to regulators in the UK for 113 alleged breaches of advertising law.
Since its inception in 2008, Paltrow has been repeatedly called out for Goop’s bizarre and scientifically dubious health advice – from vaginal steaming to bee stings on the face.
Good Thinking Society, a charity to promote ‘scientific scepticism’, reported Goop to National Trading Standards and the Advertising Standards Authority over potentially dangerous products – including an £88 pregnancy supplement (or ‘top-of-the-line natal protocol), which experts say could actually be harmful to unborn babies.
“It is shocking to see the sheer volume of unproven claims made by Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop about their products,” Laura Thomason, project manager at Good Thinking Society told The Independent. Earlier this year, Goop was also forced to pay out over £122,000 over claims that putting jade eggs in your vagina every day could remove ‘negative energy.’
What’s interesting about the Goop phenomenon from a Hysterical Women perspective though is the demand for alternative wellness solutions. Paltrow’s may be the most high profile, but it’s just one of many popular brands thriving in the fast-growing wellness industry. It’s an industry that’s targeted almost exclusively at women, with ostensibly good intentions – better health and wellbeing – but driven by commercial products that range from the scientifically sound to the distinctly dubious.
All of which makes me wonder how much of ‘wellness’ is a response to the sexism and dismissal women have faced at the hands of conventional medicine. Earlier this year I looked into natural contraceptives and family planning methods for Patient.info and found that, as with the growing trend for plant-based, unprocessed foods, women are increasingly seeking so-called ‘natural’ alternatives when it comes to family planning.
One of the women I spoke to told me she’d found a community of women online who were turning to herbal abortions and contraceptives in response to the ‘patriarchal medical establishment’:
I think women are reverting to traditional methods because they do work, even if somewhat unpredictably. Different women respond to different things so it’s not so easy for doctors to just have a one-for-all cure.
Second, because we have seen time and time again, looking at the medical establishment and governments around the world, that the so-called patriarchy hardly ever seems to have women’s best interests at heart, so we are taking things into our own hands. Basically, I feel in my own body what is good for me and what is not, and some man in an ivory tower keeps telling me and millions of other unique humans that they are all wrong about their own feeling and their own body.
We’ve been told we should take this fake and expensive chemical [the Pill] instead (which – oops! – causes depression all along… After we told all of you that you’re crazy and the pill has no side effects, not even weight gain, which is a textbook side effect of female hormones). No wonder we’re distrusting of their methods.
Although untested in the medical world, many of these methods have generations upon generations of women’s wisdom behind them, and in fact when I take them I do not feel sick, unbalanced, in pain, depressed, or any of the other things that morning after and contraception pills make me feel. Others may feel differently and that’s ok. But my body always tells me the truth and I prefer to listen.
It’s not an unreasonable argument on the face of it. If science and medicine is too sexist to take our health concerns seriously, why shouldn’t we take matters into our own hands? But are women, in doing so, putting themselves at even greater risk of harm?
Dr Diana Mansour, vice president of the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare (FSRH) for Clinical Quality, told me she has serious concerns about women seeking out herbal abortions and contraceptives. “There really isn’t any evidence they actually work as a contraceptive, and I do worry that people are going to either get pregnant using these things or come to some harm. Dong quai, for example, can cause bruising or put you at risk of bleeding,” she explains.
Instead, what we really need is for science and medicine to do better.
In other news this week…
Women over 34 are being refused IVF treatment
The BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme reported this week that women over 34 are being automatically refused NHS IVF treatment in 12 areas across England – despite the fact official guidelines say it should be offered to women up to the age of 42. In total, 80% of Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) were failing to stick to these guidelines, with seven having scrapped IVF on the NHS altogether.
The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists blamed “inadequate government funding”.
It said it was “very concerned that women and their partners are turning to costly private clinics for treatment”.
Sarah Norcross, co-chair of campaign group Fertility Fairness, told the Victoria Derbyshire programme that it “penalises the women who take longer to find a partner or wish to put themselves on a secure financial footing before trying to conceive”.
The group’s 2018 report into IVF rationing found that 30 CCGs have “slashed NHS fertility services” in the last two years.
Sexism cancelling out girls’ inbuilt biological survival advantage
According to global child mortality research from Queen Mary University of London, published this week, levels of gender inequality across the world are linked with disproportionate death rates of girls under five.
Their analysis of data from 195 countries suggested that the unequal treatment of females in society could be impeding the natural biological advantage they have over males for survival, as women tend to live longer than men almost everywhere worldwide and in some countries they do so by more than a decade.
“The more unequal a society, the more girls are penalised in terms of their survival chances, particularly in lower-middle income countries,” said lead researcher Dr Valentina Gallo. “Gender inequality then perpetuates itself through the generations via these unfair odds of survival.
“Because of a sexist ideology which values boys over girls, young girls are often at greater risk of mortality through diminished access to health resources, as well as through heightened exposure to health risks. These girls are also further exposed to this risk via their mothers, who may themselves be penalised and valued less than mothers of sons, and less able to provide for their daughters.”
When BPAS first announced their “We Trust Women” campaign to decriminalise abortion in the UK, it seemed hopelessly ambitious, but what a difference a year can make. The advancements made thus far, as well as declarations of support for decriminalisation from professional medical bodies including The BMA, The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and The Royal College of Midwives, mean that it is now a real possibility. We must build on the momentum of this year to finally ensure that women in Northern Ireland are no longer denied access to basic healthcare and that women across the UK can truly have governance over their own bodies.