"i bleed each month to help make humankind a possibility. my womb is home to the divine. a source of life for our species. whether i choose to create or not. but very few times it is seen that way."
- Rupi Kaur, period.
In the span of a year, New York went from being a place where its public transportation system blocked ads deemed offensive for containing the word "period" to becoming the first state in the nation to pass a legislative package that guarantees access to menstrual products in public schools, shelters, and corrections facilities. We shouldn't just think this is part of a natural arc of progress, though—we should instead be thanking the women entrepreneurs who have worked hard to make this type of change possible, and who have an engrained understanding of what their customer wants because they are also their own target audience.
Miki Agrawal, the co-founder and "she-E-O" of THINX, started developing her period-proof panties after finding herself constantly rushing home in the middle of work because she would forget to change her tampon. "Every month, I would ruin a pair of underwear, a pair of jeans, and my mattress would have a new stain. I thought enough was enough, and I realized there was literally nothing on the market that we wanted to wear," she says.
In the past, there have been attempts to make period-proof underwear, but Agrawal explains that they were unappealing to consumers because of their bulky, diaper-like appearance. Agrawal sought to create period-proof underwear that made her feel "beautiful, sexy, comfortable, and protected" while also locking in moisture to prevent leaking and stay dry while worn. After years of researching, she eventually found a technology company that created a prototype with the anti-microbial fabric needed for the underwear.
From developing to launching the final product, it took three and a half years for THINX to finally get on the market. The underwear holds an estimated two tampons worth of blood. Agrawal's strategy has been to change the culture around menstruation. To do this, she knew that THINX had to go beyond marketing and explore how they could alter behavior.
With a team of millennial women, Agrawal could constantly peer evaluate and engage in debates about what made the most sense. She uses a three-pronged tripod as the model for THINX to follow: innovation, accessibility/relatability, and aesthetic. The company also holds several events throughout the year which has fostered a community beyond the underwear, another crucial element for the brand as a whole.
"We are talking directly to our people, and there's no in between. We want to get to know them intimately, and we want them to feel held and understood because want to be held and understood," she says. "Our company is really about making periods easier to experience for humans and then through building this company and growing a team of badass feminists who I adore and learn from almost every day."
Agrawal adds, "We understand you, and we know exactly what you're going through because we're going through it too. We don't want to be advertised to; we hate that. We don't want to be talked to in a condescending way. We want to be talked to in a way that's fresh and inspiring and real. We want a product that works. We are in support of whatever you're feeling or going through, and we know it because we're experiencing it."
Lauren Schulte is the founder and CEO of FLEX, a line of disposable discs that are a new alternative to tampons with a claim to provide "mess-free sex." After suffering from chronic yeast infections at the end of her period for years, it wasn't until a nurse practitioner suggested using other products that she made a switch. "What I learned from her was that tampons, even organic ones, disrupt the pH of your vagina significantly because fundamentally the materials that they're made out of disrupt the very delicate balance and a lot of the immunity that your body works so hard to build up."
Schulte tried menstrual cups but found the process to be too messy for her. Due to her condition, she actually had to throw away the cup and get a new one every time to prevent the infections from continuing. "I was embarrassed to talk about my periods, really because I was embarrassed about this persistent problem—my vagina was out of commission for 50 percent of my life," she says.
From 2014 onward, studying what worked best for her vagina became an all-consuming part of Schulte's life. Since she was constantly testing every feminine hygiene product she could get her hands on, it only made sense to start developing a prototype for her own product. Schulte dove deep into research, held focus groups with women, tested the product, and eventually quit her full-time job once she designed a concept for FLEX. After raising money through the Y Combinator fellowship program in Los Angeles, she is now manufacturing her FDA-compliant product and shipping it out to customers all over the world.
"Our brand is really about accessibility and giving women more options. We have invested heavily in innovation because my hypothesis is that women have this terrible association with their periods," she says. "They hate their periods, and we are bleeding out of our bodies for 25 percent of our lives. I wanted to give women an option to have a product that allows them to go about their business without really thinking about the fact that they're on their period."
The ingredients in feminine hygiene products are not regulated by the FDA, which means that companies are not required to list them on the labels, and some of the chemicals used in certain brands have been shown to have detrimental health effects. There also isn't enough research on the long-term effects of using chlorine-bleached products in such an intimate way.
This is part of the reason why Talia Frenkel launched L., a movement to provide safe and natural products to women worldwide. Originally a photojournalist, Frenkel's interest in women's health developed after working for the Red Cross and United Nations, where she was fully exposed to women's lack of access to reproductive rights and the effects of HIV/AIDS on girls across the globe. While conversing about empowerment and how girls are the greatest untapped resource in the development community, Frankel noticed that enough wasn't being done to properly support these future agents of change.
"What we really failed to realize was that the same girl that we talked about as the future president also gets her period and is sexually active. And that there's absolutely nothing wrong with that," she says. "I just felt this disconnect, and I realized that instead of reporting [on the] girls the way that I wanted to, there was this shaming. And it's not just isolated to developing countries—it also occurs here all of the all of the time. The shaming of taboo topics that really impact women's ability to not just thrive but survive."
Frenkel started off with L. condoms in 2014 but has since expanded the brand to facilitating non-GMO pads and tampons that can be ordered through a subscription service. The best part about L. is that the company wants their products to be both accessible and affordable, which is why they are also available to purchase at Target.
"It would have been a lot easier to make a hyper-premium product, but, for me, it was like, 'How do we create access to healthy products here in the United States as well as in developing countries?'" she says. "The reality is that this is a product that women need access to and that shouldn't be treated as a luxury. It was really important for us to have certified organic cotton and use the best quality ingredients, but also to be able to make it affordable through a subscription model."
When customers buy a product from L., they are also distributing one to another woman in need in the process. L. has also been donating its pad manufacturing machine in an effort to employ up to 10 women at a time and to give back to girls in a holistic way.
"I think what I just realized is that the conversation that I really wanted to have growing up, or I wish I had, is a conversation that I think many people, women, and men, are desperate to have. I love the way the men respond if I'm in a bar or something and I talk about what we're doing. It's crazy to me how eager they are to talk about these things outside of their relationship and to get educated," says Frenkel. "I think there's a huge opportunity for a more open dialogue. I think everyone would benefit if that existed, and we're working to make that happen."
Remember the awkward years of learning about the inner workings of your vagina? Health class in middle and high school was a traumatizing time for many. Imagine how much easier a lesson on the menstrual cycle would have been if The Period Game was around. Daniela Gilsanz came up with the concept while she was a senior at the Rhode Island School of Design.
"I liked learning about [menstruation], but it was definitely like awkward... There is definitely a weird stigma in that environment about talking about," she says. "I think I was lucky to escape a lot of that, but it was really interesting to hear about how other people have learned [in college.] Some people had just never talked about it with their parents and didn’t know. One girl thought she was going to bleed every day for the rest of her life... To hear a story like that, which is so reminiscent of Carrie, and to know that that is still happening today was really a wow moment."
This is another reason why FLEX provides its customers with a personalized support service. Schulte explains how it is extremely important to her for women to have someone to guide them during their first interaction with the brand. Because there is a learning curve factor, Schulte had to figure out how FLEX could replicate the experience without physically being in the room with customers and "ensure that they have that same level of human contact and support if the written instructions that we give them aren't clear enough." In addition to a video tutorial with step-by-step instructions, subscribers have the ability to speak directly to FLEX representatives.
"People can call us on the phone, get in contact with the humans, you can chat with us, you can FaceTime us, you can text us—basically any form of communication that you want to walk you through the process to ensure that you are successful," she says.
Emily and Laura Schubert and their childhood friend Lillian Tung are all the co-founders of Fur, the only pubic hair and skin-care brand on the market. Although they specialize in grooming, their products offer women (and men) the power to choose what they want to do with their bodies. Fur is about defining beauty on your own terms because "people should do what they like to do."
"Saying now that the quote-unquote trend is hair is just as bad as saying the trend is not hair. That's why we felt it was really important to message it again, and just to be more modern about it and say it's not about picking what's in and what's out," says Laura. "It's about you picking what you choose; it's about your choice."
The idea came to the Schubert sisters after they both started questioning the way in which products within the waxing industry came from the place of an "unforgiving perspective." They wanted better options to care for their hair and skin that made them feel like they were "taking care of ourselves and respecting ourselves" without the hassle of going through a painful hair removal process. With customers of both genders, the Schuberts designed a package that is timeless, unisex, and elegant.
Even though she grew up in a household full of body positivity, Laura still felt the pressure of having to groom herself a certain way. Now, she's excited to have an opportunity where she can return the favor and provide all people with something that promotes body confidence, body positivity, and the power of making your own choice.
"I feel like there are a lot of really honestly disturbing marketing messages out there when it comes to products for your vagina about cleanliness, and playing to women's sort of fears and insecurities... It's just really all over the place," says Laura. "We don't necessarily want to shock people, but we do want to make pubic hair sort of more normal."
Lo Bosworth recently launched Love Wellness to elevate the experience of women taking care of their bodies with a range of natural feminine hygiene products. "You go to the drugstore and buy a big name product, and it's full of cancer-causing chemicals," she says. "Consumers are really ingredient savvy these days, so we felt like making our products completely natural was really a priority for us from a safety perspective."
Like most women in their 20s, Bosworth started having common health problems like yeast infections. Taking prescription medicines from the drugstore made her feel worse, so she started reaching out to specialists to recommend other alternatives. After discovering the magic wonders of boric acid and seeing instant results, she began making her own suppositories in her kitchen. From there, the idea for Love Wellness developed.
"I'm doing this for every woman that has ever had a problem because everybody deserves to have products that work well, that are safe for their bodies, that look beautiful in their bathroom," she says.
Bosworth wants to eliminate the embarrassment around taking care of your body through the use of high-grade natural products "formulated on biology instead of what a man thinks is best for you." With that in mind, she designed the packaging for the Love Wellness products with the feel of "understated cosmetics that you are not embarrassed to have in your bathroom or in your purse."
"There is no reason why you should have 15 products for your face and zero products for your vagina," she says. "It's the most precious part of your body; we give birth through it. We should be taking really good care of it."
Lovability came to life after co-founder Tiffany Gaines finally had enough of her girlfriends complaining about the wave of discomfort that would wash over them when "buying, carrying, and providing condoms." She also wanted to make something that would combat the hypersexualisation of women who are confident enough to carry their own condoms. Lovability gave her the power to take back control of the narrative.
"Condoms in the past have been a completely male-dominated industry. They were designed by men, they were marketed by men, the companies have been run by men, they've been speaking to men in a man's voice. I really felt like, 'So, yes this product goes on a man, but there's so much more riding on a woman when she has sex than a man,'" she says. "I thought, 'Why don't we take condoms and make them feel like you are actually buying a beautiful candle or that really cute lip balm from Sephora that you actually get excited about purchasing? How can it feel like something that's a treat?' Because it is a treat to be able to take care of your body and to be able to take power over your health."
From there, Gaines started designing her own condom line with women in mind. Unlike the average condom, Lovability users can tell "what's right side up and what's right side down" because of the way that the condom is positioned in the packaging. Each condom comes in a tin, which has encouraging one-liners like "talk feminist to me" and "babe with the power." (She says that this will immediately help women tell the difference between a feminist and a fuccboi.)
"Unfortunately, in this day and age, so many of our rights over our body are being questioned and being argued," she says. "To be able to have a product that really helps you to take charge of your health so that you don't need to ask anyone else for permission, it should feel like a celebration and a really awesome exercise of power."
She adds, "We are a generation of women with really big dreams, closing the wage gap. We want to be girl bosses, entrepreneurs. We want to be a mom on our own terms, not by accident. We don't want our health getting in the way of our success. We want this product to remind us that our future and our power matters and we shouldn't put it in the hands of a guy."
There is also room for vaginas in the tech world too. Clue founder Ida Tin created a period and ovulation tracking app based on her own personal experiences. "Reproductive health is an incredibly foundational and central part of our lives, but when I was about 30 and the Pill wasn’t working well for me, I realized that there had been little innovation in this space for the past 50 years," she says.
Tin started conceptualizing Clue in 2009 and then launched the app in 2013. The lack of clarity that women have from the moment they have their first period motivated her to create something that gave people a better awareness of what is going on in their bodies and the unique patterns in their cycles.
Due to the media's traditional reinforcement of stereotypical images of femininity when it comes to advertising and marketing of female hygiene products, Tin wanted to "build a user experience that centered on confidence, empathy, and science–not something filled with pink butterflies and euphemisms. I think that this is something that companies selling menstrual hygiene products are only just starting to realize."
Through Clue, she aims to educate people about their bodies by providing accessible tools that are easy to use and to further "advance the science and state of global female health." She adds, "I am grateful that I have the ability to create life and feel connected to my body in this way. I feel it’s an expression of something very deep, the power of life and death, and the wild and relentless power of nature.
These are some of the same reasons that led Natalie Brito, a postdoctoral research scientist at Columbia University with a Ph.D. in Human Development and Public Policy, to launch the sexual health app biem. Once she and her team realized that there are an estimated 20 million new STI and STD cases every year in the U.S., they decided to step in and offer a preventative measure that removes the stigma around having STDs. "Our mission is to increase sexual health transparency. We have leveraged new technologies in mobility, video chat services, and electronic health records to create a platform that will allow users to see a healthcare provider over video chat, be diagnosed, and receive medical advice and prescriptions, conveniently over their phone," she says.
After 18 months of market research, Brito and her team concluded that "this current generation of tech savvy and health conscious individuals want a better way to get tested for STDs, receive results, and share their results with potential partners quickly and conveniently." The purpose of biem is to "encourage proactive sexual health behavior by providing a way to securely share recent test results." In addition to launching the mobile app this month, biem will be recruiting a "coalition of individuals who are advocates of sexual health transparency" with "the idea that we should be open and honest about our sexual health."
She adds, "Providing the mechanism is not enough, we need a social movement that encourages people to get tested regularly, ask their partners about their sexual health history, and promote a judgment-free environment to talk about sexual health."
As the first app of its kind, biem also has a notification system that allows users to connect with each other and receive an alert if any of their sexual partners test positive for an STD within a six-month duration. Brito explains that the biem connect notification system is "completely anonymous" and protects users from partners who might have undiagnosed STDs. She also ensured that "the entire biem system is HIPAA compliant and uses advanced security technologies to prevent unauthorized access to user data."
"We want women to feel empowered to ask their partners about sexual health," says Brito. "Right now, asking potential partners about STDs is awkward, and there is no way to easily verify results. We are providing a way to start the conversation."
Oftentimes, it feels like we exist in a world completely controlled by men. Despite all the contributions and sacrifices that women make for the sake of society, we continue to be stripped of our rights. Even in areas where we should have the power to make our own choices, we are threatened. However, there are women willing to fight the good fight and do whatever it takes to give each other the support they need.
"It's not an easy space to work in, and it's dominated by industry giants that have their boxing gloves on," says Frenkel. "To enter this space you have to be extremely passionate about women's health and women's reproductive rights."
These women aren't alone in their endeavors, though. Kate Lee is the founder of LOONCUP, the world's first smart menstrual cup. Ridhi Tariual, one of the founders of NextGen, is hoping to bring disease-detecting tampons to the mainstream. Suzie Welsh started her subscription startup BINTO as a way to offer couples hoping to conceive all-natural fertility products.
"[The vagina] is a highly absorbent place. It's so, so important that these products we're putting in our body, that we pay attention to the ingredients that are in or not in them, and that there is a higher degree of responsibility and transparency because we're not in a good place right now," says Frenkel. "There have been no long-term studies of the impacts of these toxins, that the EPA has identified that there's no safe level of exposure to, is in these products. And then we put these products in our bodies 11,000 times."
A few months ago, The FADER highlighted how artists, activists, and entrepreneurs are changing the way our society talks about menstruation in a piece titled "The End Of Period Shame." We are currently seeing more new technology that benefits women's health in the process of being invented than most people have dared to dream in the last century.
"The thing that I care about the most is that women have more options," says Schulte. "Tampons were invented about 80 years ago. In the past 80 years, we have put a man on the moon, we have invented television, we have invented the internet, we have mapped the human genome, and tampons more or less have stayed the same. They're still cotton, they're still shaped the same way, they come in better packaging, there are different applicators, but they're fundamentally still the same. Women deserve to have more options."
*Before using any of these products, consult your doctor to figure out what will work best for you.