Social Media ‘Wellness’ Influencers Peddle Lies About Birth Control

Conservative Christian activists and online influencers want you to stop taking birth control to be a good "natural woman."

Graphic illustration of a cross in front of a white picket fence
"Wellness" influencers, some motivated by conservative Christian (usually evangelical, but sometimes Catholic) beliefs, are coalescing around the message that legitimate methods of birth control are bad for you. Cage Rivera/Rewire News Group illustration

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“The government does not want you to know this,” a young woman says with a conspiratorial look into the camera. She then solemnly nods along to a clip of a 24-year-old YouTuber and purported “self-made millionaire,” who explains that women working outside the home is a government conspiracy to make more money in taxes, make families weaker, and stop parents from “programming” their kids as they see fit. the Instagram reel, which has since been taken down, had been viewed over 1.9 million times and had more than 115,000 likes as of March 9.

Though clearly popular, the video lacked a certain slickness we’ve come to expect on social media: professional-quality lighting, suspiciously poreless skin, carefully chosen camera angles. But not to worry: “traditional values” content comes in that format as well.

“Welcome to the side of TikTok where instead of us, as women, tearing down our guys, our men? We actually uplift them, motivate them, inspire them, and hype them up. And along with that means learning how to submit to them, which is a new concept for a lot of women,” a beautiful young woman says, mugging for the camera with subtle makeup and glossy dark hair.

While some of this content screams housewife kink (#sandwichmaker #obedientwife), other creators seem entirely earnest and are clearly motivated by conservative Christian—usually evangelical, but sometimes Catholic—beliefs. And increasingly, they’re coalescing around another message: Birth control is bad for you. On this front, they have some unusual bedfellows: wellness influencers who are also urging women to toss their pills, take out their IUDs, and do things the “natural way.”

So-called “natural” forms of contraception are more scientifically known as fertility awareness-based methods (FABMs). This umbrella term includes a wide range of methods, all intended to help people identify the days of their menstrual cycle on which sex is most likely to lead to pregnancy. This can include tracking the cycle on a calendar as well as measuring biomarkers like basal body temperature, cervical mucus, and urinary hormones—or various combinations of these things.

These forms of contraception are perfectly legitimate, and people might prefer them for many reasons, past negative experiences with pharmaceutical options being a common one. But many influencers are promoting FABMs by exaggerating the risks of other methods of contraception—or fabricating new risks entirely—while also failing to give their audiences the kind of detailed information they need to use FABMs effectively.

Some of this content is misinformation: It’s misleading, but not intentionally so, and often spread by people who have misinterpreted scientific evidence. However, other content decidedly falls into the category of disinformation: It’s intentionally misleading, and spread by people who have an ideological or financial interest in promoting it.

In fact, for some conservative groups, disinformation about contraceptives is part of a larger campaign to cast gender as something that is rigid and biologically determined, and encourage a return to traditional and oppressive gender roles. And in this post-Roe world, the damage this disinformation campaign stands to cause is catastrophic.

High risk, no reward?

You might not follow any Christian or “cuteservative” influencers. But if you’ve dipped into the digital world of “wellness,” you may have seen some content remarkably similar to theirs. Aside from occasional giveaways—like the false claim that birth control is an abortifacient—if you were to watch a series of #naturalbirthcontrol videos without looking at the creator’s profile, you might find it difficult to guess whose page would describe them as a “follower of Christ” versus a “holistic hormone coach.” The content is nearly identical.

One of the most common myths they’re spreading is that hormonal contraception destroys the body’s natural hormone production, with the implication being that it could lead to infertility.

“Of the FDA-approved methods that we have available, none of them have been shown to impact future fertility,” said Dr. Tania Basu Serna, an OB-GYN practicing in the San Francisco Bay area, who added that this is by far the most frequent misconception about hormonal contraceptives she encounters.

Another common refrain in this space is that birth control is a carcinogen. It is, in fact, true that hormonal contraceptives may increase the risk of certain types of cancer, but they significantly decrease the risk of others.

“Overall cancer rates are actually decreased among patients on the combined hormonal contraceptive pill,” Serna said.

Yet another popular claim, which also featured prominently in the Ricki Lake documentary The Business of Birth Control, is that birth control changes who you’re attracted to. This claim is based largely on small studies that relied on self-reported data from women who were taking contraceptive pills when they got married and later stopped taking them. The women reported finding their husbands less attractive after they stopped taking the pill. (Surely that couldn’t have anything to do with having children or getting bored in a long-term relationship.) Other larger and more carefully designed studies have found no such association. The most generous way of looking at this assertion is that it could be possible—but it’s hardly the black-and-white fact many wellness influencers make it out to be.

Other influencers take advantage of legitimate gray areas in the research, such as the impact of hormonal contraceptives on anxiety and depression, said Chelsea Polis, senior scientist of epidemiology at Population Council’s Center for Biomedical Research. Other claims are simply outlandish, such as the oft-repeated one that copper IUDs can cause copper toxicity—in reality, the small amounts of copper you absorb from an IUD, Serna said, are only a risk for people with rare conditions like Wilson’s disease. Put simply, pros and cons exist for every method of contraception available. But that’s the kind of nuance that doesn’t come across well in a 90-second video.

However, if you’ve ever been a young woman in a doctor’s office, you can understand why it might be tempting to look outside of medicine for answers. In a 2022 survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly half of young women reported having at least one type of negative interaction with a health-care provider in the previous year. It’s the origin story of many of these “natural birth control” influencers, and the unfortunate commonality of that experience is part of what makes the content so popular.

“You have this dangerous combination of people looking for support, looking to feel seen, and people that are making them feel seen, but also misleading them with the information that they’re providing,” said Krystale Littlejohn, associate professor of sociology at the University of Oregon and author of Just Get on the Pill.

“I think some of these creators recognize that people are finding this content out of desire to find information, but also that a lot of our actions are based in hopes, and dreams, and fears, and desires. And when that kind of powerful combination is at play, it becomes easy to mix things in, and for the viewer to lose track of what is real and what is not.”

Big Pharma: The villain that wasn’t

Many content creators also present hormonal contraception as a pharmaceutical industry conspiracy, motivated by profit. While Big Pharma is everyone’s favorite villain—usually for good reason—in this case, the theory doesn’t quite hold water. Contraceptive research lags, in large part, due to a lack of investment from pharmaceutical companies. The vast majority of funding for contraceptive development comes from the government and private foundations, but the U.S. system requires a pharmaceutical company to take new drugs and medical devices across the finish line. If contraceptives were more profitable, pharmaceutical companies would be more interested, and we might have more and better options.

But it’s no wonder that people think there’s a conspiracy here—while 38 states and Washington, D.C. mandate some kind of sex education, such programs tend to be extremely lacking, and many emphasize abstinence over all other forms of contraception and STI prevention. Few people are highly knowledgeable about FABMs and how to use them effectively—including medical providers.

“We have created a vacuum of information,” Polis said. “When people discover that there’s this whole world out there of FABMs, I can see why they feel like it’s been hidden from them. And it feels really pure, and appealing, and natural. And [my field has] fallen down on the job of helping them navigate this landscape.”

In 2018, Polis and some of her colleagues published a systematic review of research on the effectiveness of FABMs. It’s important to understand, she said, that the studies they identified and summarized were only of moderate—not high—quality. Still, based on that evidence, which is distilled in this interactive graphic, you can see that some FABMs might be quite effective, at least within the specific studies and populations in which they have been evaluated.

However, there are many different types of FABMs, and failure rates with typical use vary significantly between methods. Some social media content in this area comes from FABM educators who are sharing the detailed, nuanced information people need to choose between methods and use them effectively. But most influencers—who make FABMs seem glamorous, sexy, and virtuous—are not.

Case in point: the Daysy. Many of TikTok and Instagram’s “natural birth control” influencers are advertising the Daysy, a “fertility tracker” that retails for more than $300. Who’s profiting now?

“No more toxic birth control, I simply take my temperature evey morning and it lets me know if im fertile!” one influencer writes in the caption of a video with nearly 298,000 views as of this writing.

Daysy’s maker, Valley Electronics, sued Polis in 2020 after she privately and then publicly raised concerns about their marketing of the device, which included claims it was similar in effectiveness to the copper IUD. She ultimately prevailed after a two-year legal battle. But while the company has made subtle changes to its marketing language—for example, “99.4 percent accurate” instead of “99.4 percent effective”—these changes likely aren’t significant enough to be meaningful to the average person, she said.

Look closely, and even influencers who aren’t selling Daysy are often selling something: “hormone coaching,” classes, a book, or a nutrition or workout plan.

Pulling back the curtain

One of the top hits for #birthcontrol on TikTok, with over 889,000 views, is a clip from a podcast called The Spillover, in which a guest suggests that birth control can cause future miscarriage. The host of the show is Alex Clark, who works for the conservative nonprofit Turning Point USA and spreads disinformation about contraceptives all over the internet.

Clark’s affiliation—and her biases—are obvious, but with other influencers you have to look a bit more closely. Take 28, the website and app that promise to guide you through “cycle-based wellness.” The idea of “cycle syncing,” which suggests workouts and other lifestyle activities should be timed according to the phases of your menstrual cycle and often incorporates FABMs, is another huge trend on wellness Instagram and TikTok. Many of “cycle syncing’s” proponents, including 28, call it “science-based” because of an emerging body of scientific research about the menstrual cycle and athletic performance. (Research in this area is hardly conclusive, and most experts agree it needs improvement.)

The 28 Instagram feed looks like those of so many other wellness brands: a cohesive, carefully crafted look; colorful, carbless meals; and lots of beautiful, thin models. However, in this case, the models are telling you just how thrilled they are to have ditched birth control and started cycle syncing. Many of the model/influencers featured on the feed have no clear religious or political affiliations—but the reality is that 28 is a startup founded by the husband and wife team Brittany and Gabriel Hugoboom and backed by Peter Thiel.

Brittany Hugoboom is also the founder of Evie Magazine, the conservative answer to Cosmopolitan. Recent headlines include, “We Can’t Blame America’s Population Decline On Women Having Fewer Children—The Real Issue Is Childlessness,” and “How To Stop Being Offended By Everything.” Evie is also transphobic, sometimes obviously so, and other times in the way much of this “wellness” content is: by framing fertility, the menstrual cycle, and eventual pregnancy as essential parts of womanhood, dovetailing not only with the anti-birth control disinformation campaign, but with conservative attacks on trans people. But on the 28 feed, it’s all beauty and positivity.

Validating feelings, sharing facts

It’s clear that to counter disinformation, medical providers and public health professionals need to learn to talk to their patients about all methods of contraception in affirming and nonjudgmental ways. For too long, Serna said, many physicians were too singularly focused on effectiveness when counseling patients on contraceptive methods, leading many to feel dismissed or even coerced when they raised questions or concerns.

“There are so many things that influence contraceptive choice,” she said. “We, as a field, need to really be sure we’re providing truly patient-centered care and not being biased in the way we counsel patients.”

It’s not only contraceptive users who have to be on the lookout for manipulation—physicians, too, are targets. For example, a group called Fertility Appreciation Collaborative to Teach the Science (FACTS) purports to “share the best evidence available” on FABMs with the medical community, but was co-founded by a physician associated with the anti-abortion Charlotte Lozier Institute and other similar groups. For Polis and her colleagues who research FABMs rigorously, it’s often “nights and weekends” work, she said, with little funding and support from the broader reproductive health field.

“Some people are unhappy with their birth control methods. Some people are fearful about birth control,” Littlejohn, the Oregon professor said, pointing out that social media influencers may be doing a better job of validating those feelings than some medical providers. However, she said, they’re also failing to give people the kind of information they need to make informed decisions.

“Let’s acknowledge people’s feelings, and also let’s make sure they have accurate information to help them make the best decisions for themselves.”