Many people understand that celebrities are not health experts, yet the media persist on giving them a public forum to share their health and lifestyle advice. Journalists insist on printing celebrity musings without critical insight. This is dangerous. We see this in the anti-vaccine movement, but it’s pervasive in other ways. Over the next couple of days I’ll present a couple of case studies focusing on why it’s especially damaging to present celebrity ideas about women’s health without consideration to the social impact.
First up, I show the problems of presenting scientifically invalid ideas about vaginal health. A popular young American actress, Shailene Woodley, has reportedly suggested that genital yeast infection and other genital conditions can be cured by exposing vaginas to sunlight. She says she read this advice in an article by “an herbalist.” The media has repeated this advice and even recommended it with relish.
Young women who have limited access to sexual health education and who may not understand their bodies do not need to be exposed to pseudoscience. The individual musings of celebrities can be ignored at the individual level. At the social level, however, the media have cultural authority and a responsibility to inform readers about health issues. This is done by drawing on expert advice, not egging on damaging celebrity endorsements.
Public fascination with celebrities extends beyond their artistic work. The media persist on getting celebrities to share their bodily rituals, a practice that is especially acute for women celebrities. Celebrities seem to do a lot of body work; their looks are tied to their careers, which means trying out different diets, exercise regimes and other health and beauty routines. Often times, this body talk is pushed by journalists who are obsessed by what women eat or don’t eat, what they do to stay in shape and so on. Sometimes celebrities share advice some might find helpful. Other times, they provide medically or scientifically inaccurate advice (or they are misquoted). This leads to public confusion about health and science. Today I focus on a seemingly fun piece about a young actress providing “holistic” advice about vaginal health. Peering beyond the “fun” angle (tee hee hee, vaginas!), we see that what is passed off casually as “science” is both incorrect and dangerous.
Jezebel, a pop feminist website, discussed an article where a journalist tried to live out the health advice of Shailene Woodley.*
Woodley is a young actress who appears in the wildly successful film The Fault in our Stars, which is based on the even more beloved book by John Green. Apparently, Woodley is taken by holistic ideas of health, which is perfectly legitimate for her as an individual. A problem arises when New York Magazine then publishes an article titled My Week Living Like Shailene Woodley where a celebrity lifestyle writer acts out the random statements made by the young starlet. I’m going to focus on one element appearing in NY Mag: Woodley’s assertion that sunbathing can combat vaginal infections. In the original interview with In the Gloss, a beauty website, Woodley says:
I was reading an article written by an herbalist I studied about yeast infections and other genital issues. She said there’s nothing better than vitamin D.
To clarify: Woodley has not asked that people follow her ideas or lifestyle. Because she is a woman, and so much focus is on her looks, Woodley is apparently often asked about her beauty and body routine. She is evidently answering according to her personal philosophy and practices, as she has every right to do.
The irresponsibility comes from journalists who print this lifestyle advice without deconstructing some of the dangers or complications that might arise. More specifically, the NY Mag writer has transformed Woodley’s personal musings into health advice:
Tanning nude (i.e., sunshine contacts a vagina). Friends: Just do it. It’s lovely and warm. Shailene promises this will guard you from yeast infections, and who is to say she’s wrong. I was lucky to be on this remote mountain, but I still got a chill buddy to guard.
Who is to say Woodley (and the NY Mag reporter by association) is wrong? Science!
Woodley has shared small vignettes about how she lives her life in the context of the inane questions posed to women celebrities. Woodley is not imposing her ideas on anyone. Still, when celebrities give health and lifestyle advice, their ideas tend to get a life of their own, especially on the internet.
As I noted on Jezebel, there is no scientific basis for sunbathing to cure yeast infection nor any other vaginal condition. Vitamin A deficiency (not Vitamin D) has been linked to yeast infections, as Vitamin A is important to immunity. For example, in extreme cases of abnormality, vaginal HIV-1 DNA has been associated with abnormal vaginal discharge and “severe vitamin A deficiency.” One 2011 study suggested that Vitamin D may be explored as a possible way to treat vaginal infections after treatment for urinary tract infection, but this research has yet to be conducted, and it does not refer to yeast infections. Nor does it suggest that sunbathing is the way to test this connection.
Vaginal yeast infections, and vaginal health in general, is already shrouded in social stigma. This need not be the case. Healthy vaginas already carry bacteria including a small number of yeast cells. Vaginal yeast infections are actually very common (see the information below if you’re interested). People who have sex with women should understand how yeast infections work as it can be sexually transmitted.
Genital yeast infections happen when there is an over-abundance of the candida albicans yeast bacteria. The imbalance is usually connected to taking antibiotics, and in some cases as a reaction to elevated oestrogen levels during pregnancy or hormone therapy, or in extreme health conditions, such as HIV infection (see study I linked above) or diabetes. Vaginal yeast infections can be treated in various ways, including antifungal medicine, and by other general rules of sexual hygiene (for all genders). Sunbathing is not one of the medical treatments advocated by experts.
Aside from the general health risks of skin cancer, the vagina works as a self-cleaning system for a reason. It’s own acidic pH and fluids prevent many infections (unless there’s an illness) and so vaginas generally work just fine and should not be exposed to UV rays. And for the record, we only need minimal weekly exposure to sunlight to get adequate Vitamin D (read more below). Additionally, research shows that self-diagnosis is an important way to identify and avoid vaginal yeast infection. This means women need to understand how vaginas actually function, and be familiar with their own bodies. Misinformation complicates this process of health monitoring.
Beyond Vaginal Mysticism
Picture this: you’re a girl or a young woman who is a fan of Woodley. You don’t have good access to education about sexual health and you know little about what, if anything, you should do to keep your vagina healthy. Hearing any type of nonsense can lead to problems. Even on the Jezebel comment section, there are grown women debating the merits of sunbathing one’s vagina (though mostly about how this might feel, not necessarily with regards to curing yeast infections). Whatever your age or gender, vaginas are already veiled in equal parts mystery and social stigma. We rarely hear the word vagina or its so-called “impolite” and pejorative synonyms, let alone talk about how they really work. What we don’t talk about society can become elevated to the realm of mysticism. Vaginas are magical, secret things that are seldom discussed openly as needing day-to-day health rituals.
Vaginas are simultaneously sexualised and abhorred: they’re sexy when they’re portrayed in pornos; they’re positioned as ugly when they menstruate; and they’re either scary or awe-inspiring during childbirth. They’re a source of titillation and derision.
The social conundrum that vaginas represent in Western culture is best illustrated in the comedy Superbad. In one scene, Seth (Jonah Hill’s character) notes that vaginas are ugly when they’re pictured alone, but they’re sexy when accompanied by a penis in a porno. Later, he is scared and excited that a woman rubs her pubic area over his leg during a dance but then freaks that she “perioded” on him. Everyone laughs at him because he has menstrual blood on his pants. As feminist Chris Bobel argues, there’s a “prohibition against talking about menstruation” and the same came be said about vaginal health.
Germaine Greer once tried and failed to change the meaning of the word “cunt”: “I tried to take the malice out of it… it didn’t work. And now, in a way, I’m sort of, perversely pleased, because it meant that it kept that power.” In reviewing Greer’s work, I noted that much of the language women use to describe their genitalia is either clinical (vagina) or babytalk (“vajayjay” or “my front part”). I’ve used vagina here purposefully in a similar spirit to Greer, as I think this word is a good starting point to encourage more broadened talk about women’s sexual health.
The fact is, that outside of a hypersexual image of vaginas in adult films or the scenes of births in documentaries, vaginas are rarely seen. The concept of the vagina is political by virtue of the fact that politicians, especially conservative men, want to govern the reproductive rights of women. But vaginas are also personal beyond what we choose to do with them in connection to sex. They require maintenance and in this sense, social conversations about vaginas should be more common than they are.
Vaginas are more than just an object to be fetishised; there is more to think about than abject fear of menstruation or reverence of childbirth. Vaginas do lots of things outside of sexual contexts and for this reason women require health education and support. We don’t really teach girls this beyond how to use tampons in high school. So here is a young actress talking about how she proactively takes care of her vagina. This is great! She’s not waiting until she gets an infection; she’s out there reading about what she can do to keep her vagina healthy. Unfortunately, while she may enjoy sunbathing her vagina, and is well within her rights to do so, her personal beliefs are not presented, nor should they be taken as, lifestyle advice. Whatever she Woodley said, she did so within the context of an interview about herself. Yet journalists share the story, one has restaged it, and the information is pushed to the public without education.
As celebrity culture expands, some celebrities feel empowered by media interest in their bodies and lives to write books about lifestyle and health, even when they’re telling the public to do the most basic things like drink more water. A few celebrities build empires out of this work. Celebrities have wealth, time and teams of experts at their disposal. Woodley is not participating in this; she simply answered a question in a way the media deemed quirky. One writer steamrolled off this and got more press by replicating Woodley’s vaginal practice (if she indeed even said this as quoted). Still, the information celebrities access from random “herbalist” articles is coupled with earning power to correct health damage. They can afford to pay for professional intervention if they get ill in a way that may not be the case for ordinary folk, especially impressionable young people.
Woodley did not tell women to sunbathe their vaginas as she does; an adult reporter who should know better did this. It would be helpful if journalists actually sought to inform the public, and corrected misinformation when they write up the health musings of celebrities. Women’s bodies and sexual reproductive health are cloaked in shame. Health misinformation is not benign, especially when it comes to vaginas, a body site that is rarely discussed and is already masked in mystery. So much so it seems, that any mention of it is worth aping for a few reader clicks.
Science of Yeast Infections
- Plain language descriptions: Vaginal Yeast Infections and overview.
- Sexual transmission: genital yeast infections (open access) and yeast infection in non-pregnant women (paywall)
- Importance of self-diagnosis (paywall)
How Much Vitamin D Do We Need?
The Australian Cancer Council research shows that, on average, people with lighter skin only need 2-3 hours of Vitamin D exposure during winter months per week. Exposure should only be limited to the face, arms and hands, with sunscreen. In summer only a few minutes of direct sunlight is recommended. People with darker skin may need three to six times the amount of Vitamin D exposure with sunscreen.
* I have published a small part of my critique on Jezebel.