Dr. M. Susan Scanlon was roaming a bookstore in search of a college guidebook for her two teenage daughters. She found books on everything from shower caddies to post-graduate narratives, but she wanted an expert opinion on health and safety. When she couldn’t find it, she decided to write it herself.
Self-published in May 2015, The Gyne’s Guide for College Women: How to Have a Healthy, Safe, and Happy Four Years is a reference book targeted to women transitioning into college life. The gynecologist guidebook uses bullet points and pictures to cover topics such as health, depression, sex and alcohol. Although the book has good intentions and helpful information, it fails to grasp the complexities of a 21st-century woman.
Scanlon is no stranger to Loyola. The Loyola Stritch School of Medicine graduate now works at the Midwest Center for Women’s Healthcare and has offices in both Arlington Heights and Hoffman Estates.
The Gyne’s Guide, in an almost parental manner, repeatedly asks the question, “What kind of woman do you want to be?” Scanlon said she wrote the book so women can be prepared and understand their personal values before they’re thrown into tricky situations.
“Don’t just randomly act to what’s in front of you or just try to fit in,” said Scanlon in an interview with The Phoenix. “If you think through what’s ahead and understand the health and social issues you’ll face, you’ll be able to make choices consistent with the best woman you can be rather than just trying to fit in.”
The book’s advice to plan ahead and question the person you want to be is useful; it’s advice most of us have heard from our parents and it sounds even better coming from a professional.
Where it falters though, is in its depiction of the ideal version of a woman. It advises women to be monogamous and “selective with sexuality.” It’s understandable that a gynecologist suggests monogamy because it reduces the likelihood of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, but a gynecologist should also reinforce the ability of women to make their own (safe) sexual choices, whatever those may be.
Although the book explains healthy dorm exercises and nutrition tips, Scanlon also shares that before she eats food, she recalls the sentence “I choose to be thin” to ensure the food is worth the calories and weight. Many young women already hear a familiar voice in their head as they eat and later look in the mirror. I refuse to condone adding another. There are better things to “choose” to be than thin.
This monogamous misstep and dietary directive conflicts with another chapter: “Boost Your Self-Esteem in College.” I’m a confident, independent woman because I’m not confined to societal ideas of my sexuality or weight. Those who don’t fit in with the book’s image of health, both physically and sexually, will feel underrepresented.
In our interview, Scanlon made it clear that it’s also not her job to make decisions for readers, but for students to base decisions on their personal values.
“What is important to me is to make sure that [students] have the information they need to make smart choices and to think it through in advance,” Scanlon said. “Experimenting is not necessarily a negative thing. College is about opening your mind.”
Unsurprisingly, the gynecologist hits her stride in the chapters about contraceptives, infections and STDs. Words that seem like alphabet soup, such as progesterone injections, fibroids and trichomoniasis, are explained in short, to-the-point paragraphs. This section is especially helpful for women who feel uncomfortable discussing sex and their bodies out loud.
“It’s normal to feel uncomfortable about the topics that are discussed in the book. Everyone is uncomfortable going to the [gynecologist]. That’s common,” Scanlon said. “But I would encourage women to know that you’re not alone.”
Scanlon wrote this book to help young women. And the times I didn’t agree with her advice, it felt like I was having a conversation with a mom who just wanted the best for her kids. The advice is well-meant and the facts are dead on; it just needs to encompass a more modern woman that isn’t bound by society’s constraints on her lifestyle choices.
After our interview, Scanlon and I discussed college, my plans for graduation and internships. We swapped stories and shared laughs. For a few warm minutes, it felt less like I was having a conversation with a gynecologist and more like I was talking to my mom.