Medical Advice of the Stars

Ophelia Benson

It’s a funny thing that many people take amateur medical (or “wellness”) advice seriously if it comes from a shiny blonde movie star with a pleasing smile. The public doesn’t flock to buy health products promoted by car mechanics or dog groomers, but people who read lines in front of a camera—now that’s a whole different proposition.

In September, Gwyneth Paltrow’s “lifestyle company” Goop settled a lawsuit brought by ten California prosecutors for $145,000. The suit accused the company of making unfounded claims about products marketed to promote women’s “sexual and emotional health.” The suit focused on three products—a mix of essential oils and two “vaginal eggs.” Two what? What on Earth is a vaginal egg, you may wonder, and how is Gwyneth Paltrow harvesting them in order to sell them? No no, they’re not actual eggs; they’re egg-shaped lumps of jade or quartz that women are supposed to insert. Yes, really; I’m not making it up.

Now I had gathered from reading the news coverage of the settlement that Goop had agreed to stop making weird claims about the “wellness” benefits of these eggs, but as of this writing there are still plenty of such claims on the Goop website, authored by one Shiva Rose.

I’ve always been into crystals, so learning about jade eggs (which are gems) has been a natural progression for me—this particular jade, nephrite jade, is a dark, deep green and very heavy—it’s a great stone for taking away negative energy.

Jade eggs can help cultivate sexual energy, clear chi pathways in the body, intensify femininity, and invigorate our life force. To name a few!

It’s a holistic combination of things, where one benefit builds to another. Jade also takes away negative energy—it’s a very heavy material, and in many traditions is thought to have great spiritual power.

And much more of the same. It could be seen as absurd and pointless but no big deal, except it turns out that shoving a jade oval up what Goop calls the “yoni” is not safe. Dr. Jen Gunter, a California OB/GYN and blogger, pointed out that because jade is porous, it could introduce bacteria with unpleasant results: “This is not good, in case you were wondering. It could be a risk factor for bacterial vaginosis or even the potentially deadly toxic shock syndrome.” The Washington Post reported on Gunter’s warning, and the California prosecutors sued and won, yet the rhapsodies to jade egg insertion still are on the Goop website. It makes me wonder what it is about celebrity that makes famous people so confident about giving dangerous quack medical advice to strangers.

I shouldn’t single out Paltrow for this, though; that would be quite unfair. There’s also Charles Windsor, the next in line to the British crown. In 2016, he told an international gathering of scientists and government officials that he treats his own cows and sheep with homeopathy as a solution to the problem of antibiotic over-use in animals and humans. The Guardian reported:

The prince’s belief in homeopathic medicines for humans has long been known, as well as his support for homeopathy in the NHS [National Health Service]. It has sparked clashes with doctors and scientists who say the remedies, which involve a drop of active substance diluted in so much water that only “the memory” of the substance remains, are not evidence-based. There have been some experts, however, who have conceded that homeopathy could have a placebo effect for those who believe it will help them.

So that wouldn’t be cows and sheep, then. It’s tempting to laugh, but one wonders about the poor sheep and cattle that need actual medication that works.

The sad, prosaic, unromantic truth is that fame and glory don’t make actors and royals into medical experts—or architects or engineers or any other skilled professionals—just on their own say-so. It takes the slow, hard work of getting the relevant education and passing the relevant exams. There’s a reason for this stuffy formality: it’s so that amateurs don’t kill or injure people by prescribing toxic or useless medications or designing buildings that fall down. We humble proles who aren’t household names know this; it’s a puzzle why famous people don’t know it too.

The truth is that parlaying fame into Pretend Medical Expertise this way is an abuse of power. We can see this pretty easily when it’s people giving us orders; we seem to be not so sharp when it comes to celebrities urging us to buy this nice selection of essential oils or rose-scented homeopathic toothpaste. The power of celebrity isn’t official or legal power, of course, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s weaker. Power that we defer to voluntarily, out of infatuation or reverence, may well have a stronger hold on us than the local cop or the distant senator.

One diagnostic for abuses of power is the presence of the arbitrary—the lack of understandable reasons, of connections, of explanations that make sense. One gets from medical school to doctorhood by steps we can all comprehend; one gets from a movie star to “put this jade egg up your vagina to take away negative energy” by a wild jump. Arbitrary, magical, unaccountable power is vastly more open to abuse than the kind that relies on a reasoned and fair process. Could this be why Catholic priests have been able to molest children with impunity for so many years? Why yes, it could.

It’s not as if movie stars and princes would be out of a job if they stopped playing doctor. Gwyneth Paltrow could still market expensive soaps and alpaca lap robes; Charles Windsor could still purvey luxury marmalade and organic Shetland wool socks. Both of them could write poetry or paint paintings or strum guitars—or they could emulate David Sedaris and devote those leisure hours to picking up trash in their neighborhoods.

Ophelia Benson

Ophelia Benson edits the Butterflies and Wheels website. She was formerly associate editor of Philosopher’s Magazine and has coauthored several books, including The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense (Souvenir Press, 2004), Why Truth Matters (Continuum Books, 2006), and Does God Hate Women? (Bloomsbury Academic, 2009).