Mairi Macleod evaluates Dr Gunter’s “Vagenda”.
When I told my boyfriend I was reading a book called The Vagina Bible, he laughed out loud in the pub. That’s the thing about the word “vagina”, isn’t it? It makes people laugh, makes people squirm, makes people cringe. That’s why we, from a young age, learn to call it every other name under the sun. “Fairy”, “flower”, “kitty”…heaven forbid we should actually call it by its scientific name. Heaven forbid we should actually recognise it for what it is – a strong, dynamic and tough part of the body that can withstand a lot.
In The Vagina Bible, Dr Jen Gunter – a doctor and gynaecologist with 33 years’ experience, known as twitter’s “resident gynaecologist” – sets out to deconstruct the myths surrounding the vagina and vulva and teach those with vaginas about their bodies. She calls this her “Vagenda”. The book is unapologetically candid, and nothing is off limits. That includes the author’s own experiences, which she shares with the reader in frank and humorous anecdotes — yes, gynaecologists get ingrown hairs too. The author manages to perfectly blend factual information with personal ideology, giving the reader a well-rounded account of all things from underwear to lubrication, from yeast infections to douching. Everything you thought you knew, or rather, everything that capitalism and the patriarchy have made you believe about vaginas, is probably wrong.
The communication of science in the book is forthright and welcoming, making it accessible for all. Although there is a fair amount of scientific jargon used, Gunter breaks these terms down so that the average person can fully understand what they mean. There is a chapter dedicated to “Vaginas and Vulvas in Transition” which outlines the biological changes that occur when trans men and trans women undergo transition. As a cis female who was admittedly ignorant of the science behind transitioning, I found this incredibly informative and would encourage everyone to read it. Similarly, I got a thorough education in the menopause. I naively thought that your periods stopped, you got some hot flushes, and that was it. Although the symptoms of menopause vary for everyone, it’s definitely not that simple. There’s so much to look forward to.
Much of the book is dedicated to general vaginal maintenance. The author gives a run-down of all the products to avoid, talking specifically about “feminine” washing products marketed as being able to reduce vaginosis and balance pH levels. These claims are misleading, and these products are just another cog in the capitalist machine. Personally, I rejected these products a long time ago for that very reason, but I know plenty of women who still believe in their effectiveness. As Dr Gunter puts it, the vagina is a “self-cleaning oven” and the idea that it requires some special product to magically make it pure is absurd. She encourages users of these vaginal cleaning methods to give them up, but she simultaneously recognises that “the patriarchy is a relentless foe”.
My only criticism of the book would be that the sections that discuss treatment options and costs are targeted at an American audience, and so they weren’t relevant to me (God bless the NHS). I also found some sections (think what happens down there during childbirth) difficult to read as I will openly admit to being squeamish. Reading those sections was a bit more challenging for that reason, but that’s a weakness of mine rather than a serious criticism of the book itself.
The Vagina Bible is as much a manifesto for body autonomy as it is a factual guide. It’s about teaching people with vaginas to self-advocate in medical and social realms; simply, to talk about what goes on “down there” and not be afraid or embarrassed to speak up. It’s a call to arms for us to reclaim the narrative surrounding vaginas, to reject the idea that they are dirty things that need to be “purified,” “detoxified”, and “cleansed”. In the age of clickbait and viral news, it is more important than ever that we cast a critical eye over the information we are given – especially when it comes to something as important as our vaginas. Dr Gunter encourages us not to buy into the messages of celebrities, such as Gywneth Paltrow advocating for vaginal steaming or Jada Pinkett Smith endorsing a vaginal rejuvenation process that left her vagina “like a 16 year old’s” (which is just sinister in itself for so many reasons).
My loved ones are probably getting sick of me spouting random facts about vaginas at every opportunity, spreading my own “vagenda” to anyone who’ll listen. But that’s what this book is all about. You should not put garlic in your vagina to treat a yeast infection. There’s no real evidence to suggest peeing after sex is necessary. And, perhaps most disappointingly for me, cranberry juice won’t do anything for UTIs. That one stung a little.