Features, Science

Author Jen Gunter destigmatizes women’s health in discussion of her new book on menstruation

In the dim light of the almost-full Brattle Theatre, gynecologists were seated at the front in a line, chatting while eating popcorn from a small bucket. In front of the crowd was not just a screen, but two chairs and a bright pink book, waiting for its author to discuss it.

Jen Gunter, an obstetrician-gynecologist and pain medicine physician, discussed her new book, “Blood: The Science, Medicine, and Mythology of Menstruation,” in an event organized by Harvard Book Store Friday evening. With host Bonnie Talbert, interim director of the Harvard College Women’s Center, Gunter talked about the stigma that surrounds women’s health issues and the importance of wielding correct medical information.

Author Jen Gunter speaks about her new book, “Blood: The Science, Medicine, and Menstruation,” at The Brattle Theater on Friday. Gunter is a certified obstetrician-gynecologist in Canada and the United States, as well as a New York Times bestselling author. TAYLOR COESTER/DFP PHOTOGRAPHER

Gunter has written two New York Times-bestselling books about “taboo” women’s health topics — “The Vagina Bible” and “The Menopause Manifesto” — of those topics, menstruation is associated with the most shame, she said.

“People still stuff their pads or tampons up their sleeves when they’re walking to the bathroom to change as if that’s something that you should hide,” she said during the event. “But people carry around Kleenex boxes and blow their noses in public and there’s no issue with that at all.”

Gunter said her decision to write a book about menstruation arrived “mostly out of anger.”

“I’m angry when I hear people have gone to the doctor and they’ve had their health concerns dismissed or they haven’t had things explained to them,” she said. “And I just feel like if people could walk in with more information, then, you know what, they could help level the playing field a little bit.”

Her anger also stems from how anyone online can sell supplements that aren’t supported by science, capitalizing on misinformation, she said. Social media can also make women fearful of science-backed solutions.

Padma Kandadai, a urogynecologist at Boston Medical Center and assistant professor at BU School of Medicine, said in an interview that she and other doctors who are newer to medical advocacy view Gunter “as a role model of how to fight misinformation in the medical space.”

Kandadai echoed Gunter’s argument to factor more science into women’s health: “Frankly, there’s a lot of things that we do to women, for women that don’t really have a lot of science behind it.”

Gunter’s goal for “Blood” is to destigmatize menstruation through education, “because when you don’t know about something, that’s what breeds shame,” she said.

Historically, modesty and the belief that menstrual blood was linked with disease have bred a cultural silence around menstruation — a silence which inhibits the spread of accurate information and furthers the shame women feel about periods.

At the event, Gunter cited a chapter from “Blood” about the history of menstrual products. Gunter described how texts written by midwives in the 19th century included no details of how to manage menstruation. Even in the privacy of their own diaries, women did not write openly about menstruation.

Two attendees of Jen Gunter’s discussion holding copies of her new book. TAYLOR COESTER/DFP PHOTOGRAPHER

Summer Porter, an events coordinator at Harvard Book Store, said Gunter’s booktalk will spread awareness of women’s medical health issues.

“I haven’t really read much about this topic, and I’m a woman,” Porter said. “It’s cool to be able to hear an expert on it come to the community and talk about it.”

Jaymie Adachi, a nurse practitioner who attended the event, said she believes Gunter’s determination to distinguish fact from misinformation, especially in women’s healthcare, is crucial.

Adachi said that “it’s easy to get sucked down the rabbit hole” of the internet, but often information or advice “that look exciting and interesting are wrong.” She said she recommends Gunter’s books to her patients as a source of factual information.

Gunter advocates for pursuing research and scientific evidence to help stop the spread of misinformation about women’s health.

“We talk about how so little of women’s health has been studied [and] how little money has been put behind it,” she said. “We’re at the point where we need to demand science.”

Talbert likened Gunter’s new book to a “period party.” Talbert elaborated by telling an anecdote of an eleven-year-old girl whose mother threw her a celebration after she got her first period.

“I think of [Gunter’s] work in this book is doing that for all of us,” Talbert said during the event. “Throwing a giant metaphorical period party telling us all that menstruation is not something we have to hide.”

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