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Silicon Valley’s Quest to Make Periods Cool

Feminine hygiene is getting a millennial-savvy update — could it leave some women behind?

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

Of the 44 startups that presented products at Y Combinator’s most recent Demo Day, a biannual event held by the Bay Area’s most prestigious startup incubator, the Flex Company was decidedly different. Alongside companies pitching encrypted enterprise cloud storage and drone-based farming analytics, Flex CEO Lauren Schulte took the stage to introduce a small black disk meant for women to place under their cervix and catch period blood.

Schulte was selling feminine hygiene accessories and not a software suite, but her team had followed the same business road map as its peers. She had personally tested dozens of prototypes, spoken to hundreds of women in focus groups, and directed the product development accordingly. Flex designed its device — which differs from a traditional DivaCup in a few key ways — in the slick fashion we have come to expect from a generation of entrepreneurs raised on Jony Ive–inspired branding. The result was a menstrual disc packaged in a simple white box, embellished with gold lettering — a presentation so delicate and precious, it looks as if it were made to hold a single Ladurée macaroon.

“Down to the details of the dimensions of the box, we wanted it so it could fit on the back of a toilet or a bathroom shelf,” Schulte told me. “So that it would be able to sit out, so women could feel that they’re not embarrassed by their period. They want to show it off. They think that it’s cool.” Part of Flex’s design is still in development: Schulte wants to perfect the disk’s shiny, condom-like wrapper, a nod to the fact that the company markets its product to women who want to have mess-free sex during their periods.

Silicon Valley is trying to disrupt periods, offering what they deem “innovative” solutions to a bodily function that has existed since the beginning of mankind. There are free-bleeding period panties, underwear designed to better hold pads, subscription-based organic-cotton tampons, discs to replace tampons, and data-centric apps that track a woman’s flow and fertility.

In the same way that a company like Soylent enhanced and repackaged existing liquid meals like SlimFast to appeal to programmers, this new class of period innovators has contributed to a collective rebranding of the menstrual market, aimed at young, smartphone-fluent millennial women. Gone are the vaguely medicinal names of Big Period brands like Kotex, Tampax, and Playtex, replaced by airy, one-syllable monikers like Clue, Thinx, Glow, and Flex, and their intentionally flower-less packaging. Clue’s website describes its cycle-tracking app as “confident, scientific and not pink.” The organic-cotton tampon company Lola recently launched “Make Periods Great Again,” an election-inspired ad campaign. (Sample text from the website: “It’s the year 2016 and periods don’t get no respect.”) Thinx CEO Miki Agrawal — a former professional soccer player and particularly outspoken figure in the period business scene who sometimes pulls down her pants to show off her product in interviews — said her company aspires to “an artful experience” in communicating with customers.

“They’re trying to break away from the enforced concepts of modesty and medicalization, the two words I would most commonly associate with the history of menstrual-product marketing,” said David Linton, an emeritus professor at Marymount Manhattan College’s communications department who serves on the board for the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research. “Now we’re into menstrual mod.”

Companies have been reinventing feminine hygiene since pads were first commercially sold in America after the first World War. But in an age when ambitious startups aim to completely upend a market with high-tech patents and apps, the history of female health products has endured a type of ritualistic mythologizing that is unique to the startup world. Each female company founder has her own “gnarly” period tale as an origin story, whether that be PantyProp founder Crystal Etienne noticing her pad sticking out of her underwear while watching TV, or the tampon-induced yeast infections that Schulte said kept her vagina “out of commission for 50 percent of my life.” (The public airing of these female inconveniences has gained steam as its own online movement, dubbed “period feminism” by The Cut earlier this year).

These founders are also quick to point out that the field of period technology has been woefully neglected until this very moment. “It’s a very normal thing that every single woman experiences, and yet there has been very little innovation in the entire 20th century, because it’s taboo,” Thinx’s Agrawal told me, echoing the self-named Silicon Valley visionaries (a.k.a. tech bros) that she is often compared to. (She is often photographed with a wide brimmed, Pharrell-inspired hat over her bangs, her own version of a black turtleneck.) “When I started reading about tampons, I found out that they really hadn’t changed since they were invented in 1933, and meanwhile we put a man on on the moon, we invented the internet, we have Soylent, but there’s still nothing different for women,” Schulte said.

This is both true and not true, depending on how much credit these newer companies are willing to give to manufacturers of past pads, tampons, menstrual cups, and fertility-tracking methods — concepts that have existed in various commercial forms (and were largely patented by women) since 1879. “Every time a tampon user pops in a Playtex Sport or a Tampax Pearl, she’s handling a disposable, absorbent totem of centuries of technological innovation and cultural influence,” wrote The Atlantic last year, in a thorough history of the tampon. Trends in how and where to collect period blood have ebbed and flowed based on a number of cultural factors over the years, including 1970s feminist bleed-ins, the discovery of toxic shock syndrome, and the arrival of mainstream alternatives like the Softcup (which was created in 1991 and was recently bought by Flex) and the DivaCup (circa 2004).

Though Agrawal insists Thinx is the leader of the period-panty movement, her company has its own product predecessor. Madeleine Shaw, founder of the Canadian company Lunapads, began developing washable period panties 23 years ago. Though she said she’s seen steady growth in her company since its start, the past three years have shown a particularly encouraging spike. Lunapads just recently began a trial deal with Target to sell her products in 200 of its stores, and she said the company is on track to increase its wholesale sales by 180 percent this year.

“I don’t understand why people are saying this is so new and it’s a totally innovative thing because actually, we’ve been doing it for a long time …” Shaw told me. “It’s exciting that some companies are taking this approach and being very in-your-face about the whole thing. It feels like it’s almost a PR exercise as much as it is a marketing exercise for some businesses.”

Shaw is exactly right: While these “new” products themselves might just be repackaged, slightly improved versions of arguably old ideas, marketing them in an edgy, feminism-infused way has earned considerable attention. It strikes a sharp contrast to the feminine hygiene advertisements of yore, where periods or fertility issues were treated as an icky discussion topic, especially among binary-identifying men. Look no further than the conversation that Sally Ride, the first American female astronaut, had with engineers about how many tampons she’d need for a week-long trip to space in 1983 to measure the knowledge gap between genders. (“Is 100 the right number?” they asked. “That would not be the right number,” she replied.)

Today that gap is exemplified most prominently by the interests and investments of Silicon Valley’s largely white, male venture capitalists, the gatekeepers of the industry. (A 2014 analysis by Fortune found that only 4.2 percent of senior VCs are women). For instance, the company NextGen Jane, a startup that takes medical blood samples from tampons, found it almost impossible to convince male investors its product was worthwhile. “When you say that you’re going to build a company around menstrual blood, people think you’re joking,” company cofounder Stephen Gire told The New York Times. In their quest for funding, investors wanted to use the company’s method to measure testosterone; others suggested they use the technology to secretly test the health of a man’s sexual partners because “women are liars.” Agrawal confronted at least one hesitant Thinx investor, who had trouble understanding the pain points of some feminine hygiene products, in a more blunt manner: “I had a guy wear a pad under his twig and berries and walk around,” she told me. The sales pitch, however unusual, worked.

“If men had these hormonal changes throughout their lives, there would probably be a lot more technology for these things,” Ida Tin, the CEO of Clue, told me, unwittingly echoing Gloria Steinem’s 1978 “If Men Could MenstruateMs. Magazine piece. “I think it’s not been on men’s radar because they don’t have these things going on. You just don’t have the idea unless you’re living it.” (It should be noted that trans men and people who identify as non-binary also get periods, though much of the language used in marketing and in simply talking about periods uses binary constructions.)

It is exactly these limitations that have encouraged companies to associate their messages with feminism in many discrete and indiscrete forms, the best example of which is encapsulated in a recent Thinx-hosted anti-Fashion Week event in New York. It featured trans models, refugees, and wheels of privilege and oppression (a liberal arts college thing) under each attendee’s chair. Agrawal was there to cap off the performances, tearing up by emphasizing the importance of “social entrepreneurship” and congratulating attendees for “moving the narrative forward, so we can create unity.” The event, however well-intentioned, was exactly the type of thing that one women’s studies professor I spoke to described as the “commodification of feminism.”

That commodification is particularly stark when you consider the premium pricing of these tech-infused products in a landscape where many low-income women can barely afford the bare minimum — or even nothing — when it comes to menstruation products. Feminine hygiene products are one of the most-requested donation items at homeless shelters, according to a recent report by the Los Angeles Times. And many young girls in third-world countries miss school because they lack the resources required to properly manage their periods. In 2013, powerhouse advertising executive Nancy Kramer brought attention to a similar issue in the United States, arguing in a TED Talk that tampons should be widely available in every public bathroom, just like toilet paper. In fact, charitable startups like Distributing Dignity, SHEVA, and Conscious Period all exist to ensure feminine hygiene is available to all women, rather than to reinvent it. Instead of focusing on rebranding and marketing, these startups are trying to address an arguably bigger problem with periods — access.

It’s probably possible to do both. For every Thinx panty sold, the company sends an undisclosed amount of money to Afripads, a company that makes reusable pads for Ugandan girls. But considering a single pair of underwear cost between $24 and $38, I suggested to Agrawal that perhaps there was truth to the criticism that her company was profiting from feminism. She wasn’t having it.

“Less than five years ago, feminism was considered angry and ranty,” Agrawal said. “The fact that the word feminism and marketing has been used in the same breath has actually showed me progress. And I’m grateful for it. We’re using our authentic selves to speak to ourselves. If that is feminist — because that’s who we are — then so be it.”