Period Underwear: Lifting the Stain of Stigma

For years it was a beautiful, slim woman, smiling with joy as she danced across a beach or ran through a meadow. Then came the glossy women who got active, shopped with friends or flirted with men, always with a knowing look or sly wink to the camera. Consistently, “she” is emanating an inner glow, often dressed in white. The product she’s advertising? Tampons.

Sanitary product commercials have long depicted periods as a time for twirling around in a floaty dress, sometimes in slow motion. Even rebellious campaigns, ones that replace serenity with humor, find ways of talking about “that time of the month” without addressing the facts; for one, advertisements still use a mysterious blue liquid to demonstrate absorbency. All the while, half the population has, is, or will be experiencing the realities of menstruation, which involves a lot more, well, blood.

But things are beginning to change. As a slew of new technology floods the industry, period underwear is emerging as the latest way to manage menstruation. What’s more, it comes with a new brand of marketing that is designed to confront the stigma head on and reimagine underwear as a practical tool during shark week. By reshaping the conversation, brands such as Thinx, Dear Kates and Knix Wear are hoping to change social attitudes towards periods.

“In fact, the word taboo stems from the Polynesian root word ‘tapua’ and ‘tapua’ actually means menstruation,” said Miki Agrawal, founder of period underwear company Thinx. “So no one’s talking about it and if no one’s talking about it, how can there be innovation?”

Thinx underwear itself is novel, claiming it can replace other sanitary products and still look and feel good all day. It works by using patented technology designed to be moisture-wicking, absorbent, anti-microbial and leak-resistant. Products can hold up to two types of blood, yet are designed to look like regular, even attractive, underwear. Plus, Thinx products can be washed and dried at home, to be reused next time. This helps explain the price tag – the average pair costs $32.

But it is Thinx’s ad campaigns that have most captured the public’s attention. The images are subtly provocative; one set of advertisements places a model in the underwear next to an image of a cracked egg or half of a grapefruit, to hint at the underlying biology. Yet these were far less brazen than many other ads currently on display on the subway – think promotions for breast enhancement surgery, “beach body ready” aids, even some mattresses. Instead, Thinx’s focus was on facing the subject head-on with captions such as “Why are there period ads everywhere? The better question is, why shouldn’t there be?”

“We understand what people are concerned with and we want to squash all of those thoughts with logic and humor and fun and beautiful, artful design,” said Agrawal of the campaign. So it came as a surprise when the MTA refused to allow the advertisements on their subways.

The main complaint was that the content was deemed “offensive”, due to their use of food, the amount of skin on show and even the word “period.” They questioned what would happen if children saw the latter and asked what the word meant. Agrawal was shocked that something so common and natural would be an issue, while other sexualized campaigns were being approved. “We told them that our ads were completely within the guidelines of the MTA, that we were not going to change them because our team spent two full weeks sleeping underneath their desks in order to get these ads delivered on time,” explained Agrawal.

When Thinx were refused again, the story was picked up by Mic, which led to a viral protest being launched across the internet. In a matter of days, the story was being written about on countless news sites and Agrawal had managed to engage more people on the issue of censoring period talk.

Rebecca Traister, a feminist commentator and journalist, connected the emergence of these feminist brands to the increasing discourse on equality that is arising, both from activist groups and progressive media. “Internet feminism that is keen on demystifying periods and women’s bodily realities, as well as a feminist media that covers new products and innovations like this, probably helps give the brand name recognition and raises awareness about it,” said Traister.

In the case of Thinx and the MTA, it’s easy to see who won the battle; today, Thinx ads are emblazoned across the subway.

Society’s discomfort with the subject of menstruation has influenced not only the way we discuss the subject but also the way that we experience it. There have been nine generations of iPhones since they were introduced to the market in 2007, yet there have only been three major developments in period product technology in the past hundred years: the sanitary towel, the tampon and the menstrual cup. In some ways, the current sanitary products seem a world away from their predecessors.

“I was just talking to my mum and she was talking about how even when she was in the ‘60s getting her period, she had to wear a belt!” said Sarah Williams, head of marketing and operations at Dear Kates, another brand that creates wicking, stain releasing, and leak-resistant underwear. “I can’t even imagine wearing a belt to hold in my pad, I think that’s insane.” By contrast, the discrete tampons now available at all drugstores could seem like the ultimate development – and yet women still experience concerns of leaking, discomfort, or staining.

This delay in innovation can partly be attributed to gender inequality and the lack of women in the fields where such products are developed. As noted by Pagan Kennedy in the New York Times, experiencing a problem can make you uniquely equipped to solve it and yet women have only recently been able to enter the scientific fields on a par with their male colleagues. Nevertheless, even once the solution has been designed, these products must still be supported by investors, a group that today still remains male-dominated.

“A lot of the investors were men, a lot of them were older and there was just a 50-50 response,” explained Williams of Dear Kates’ funding rounds. “You either have men who are really interested because they talk freely with their wives about this sort of thing or you have men who really check out and don’t know how to respond.”

Moreover, tampons are still being redesigned and rebranded, which can seem like sufficient progress to people who aren’t using them month to month. Recent advertisements, such as those by Kotex, praise new technology that allows products to be slimmer, discrete, in fun colors; in fact, it’s increasingly difficult to tell apart an ad for a phone and an ad for a tampon. Yet these developments are still not solving the real practical issues that women experience. When asked why she wanted to venture into the sanitary product business, Agrawal retorted, “well how many pairs of underwear have you ruined because of your period?”

This could be seen as a little facetious but the truth is it resonates with women across the country and this is reflected in how such companies are securing some of their funding. Kickstarters are commonly used by start-ups to raise money by approaching the public directly with their idea and they have been responsible for funding both Dear Kates’ and Knix Wear’s products. By communicating directly with the target customer, these companies have been able to bypass the traditional investor route and determine that there really is a market for this kind of practical underwear – regardless of how distasteful investors may see it at first.

Knix Wear, a Canadian-based company that provides underwear that manages all kinds of leaks, was developed after founder Joanna Griffiths learned that one in three women experience the occasional light leak after giving birth. Despite the vast number of afflicted women, the situation remained unsolved by the current market.

“Women’s underwear wasn’t very functional—not for women with leakage problems after childbirth or menopause, or women who workout, either,” explained Ryah Kazman, PR & Community manager at the brand. They then quickly realized that they could apply the same technology used to treat incontinence, to managing periods – and the public responded, by donating enough to a Knix Wear Kickstarter that the brand was able to launch their first product line.

Kazman stressed the importance of two-way communication when designing such an intimate item and Williams agreed, noting how the public’s response can help the company decide which product lines to expand upon; Dear Kates will be relaunching its yoga series this summer after consumers requested it.

However, there is a second challenge with trying to win over both investors and customers. After all, it’s not just the managing of periods that brands like Thinx, Knix Wear and Dear Kates are trying to redesign; they are also underwear producers and underwear carries its own expectations and tropes. So how do you reconcile a product designed to manage bleeding with a product that is associated with sensuality and sexuality?

The difficulties of walking this tightrope are evident in Dear Kates’ experience with its Ada campaign. Named after Ada Lovelace, the first female computer programmer, the promotion decided to focus on the every-woman aspect of underwear rather than its sex appeal. Intending to disrupt the standard “women standing around looking sexy” set-up, Dear Kates cast a range of successful women in tech as their models and had them wear the underwear in the advertisements while working at their laptops.

“We really just went with our gut, which said to use women who are smart and who wear smart underwear – and that’s all women, they should all be doing that,” says Williams. “All women wear underwear so why can’t we look at all women wearing underwear?”

The models were of different shapes and races, something that could have been expected to win the brand praise. However, the response included extensive backlash across social media and from high-profile players, such as Elissa Shevinsky, CEO of the start-up Glimpse Labs. Critics slammed the campaign, suggesting that this was a sexualization that played to the gender inequality already prevalent in the tech industry. By trying to appeal to real women, the company accidentally alienated many people – which in turn pushed them away from the brand’s deeper ethos of changing the language about periods.

On the other hand are the Thinx ads, which have been widely lauded by the public (if not the establishment). Strategist Fern Miller described them as “tasteful, even beautiful,” while Sara Coughlin at Refinery29 called them “creative and badass,” and there was no public complaint despite the MTA’s opinions. But Thinx has notably only cast women who fit accepted Western standards of beauty. Here there is still an understanding of, and possibly an emphasis on, what looks good. That the range includes a thong option, which can only absorb half as much liquid as a single tampon, suggests that Thinx is very aware that their customer is not purely looking for a practical item. As much as they’re trying to change the conversation about periods, they’re not quite defying all convention.

Despite these marketing challenges, investors are waking up to the idea that there can be a revolution in the way that women manage menstruation, now that there has been grassroots success. This was demonstrated in December 2015, when Thinx closed their A round of funding with a sum of investments that Agrawal would only disclose as “multiple millions”.

Now that the companies have a foothold in the public market, they are exploring supplemental ways of combatting the stigma against menstruation, such as through branded content. For Dear Kates, this means producing a podcast series entitled “First Time” which involves host Emma Willmann sitting down with different female professionals to discuss, among other things, their first period. Thinx has its own YouTube channel, which has most notably produced their video “The Week” that looks at the wider issue of menstruation with the help of celebrity faces such as Sophia Bush and Joy Bryant.

Although there is still a way to go, these brands are optimistic about where current thinking is progressing in relation to periods and they are hopeful about the influence they can wield. In April 2016, New York became the latest state to repeal the taxation on sanitary products and that’s not all.

“New York City high schools just provided free tampons to girls – I mean that’s amazing, I really could have benefitted from that during high school!” said Sarah Williams. “I think the momentum is growing and it’s getting there fast. I think we’re definitely going on the right track.”

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