THINX is changing the face—and hygience—of periods, one pair of panties at a time. We go behind the scenes of a continent spanning undie revolution. By Kate Everson
It takes only one ruined pair of white pants to learn that pretty underwear and feminine hygiene products don’t mix. Thanks to a New York startup, however, that problem might not exist much longer.
THINX has meshed technology with common sense. Their product—absorbent, anti-microbial, stain-resistant and reusable underwear—is made with menstruation in mind, sustainability in spirit and beauty in build.
After three years of developing the technology and fundraising through Kickstarter, the organization began shipping its products in January 2014. Although the material took the longest to develop before they could go to market, THINX’s business potential and mission is just beginning.
THINX was founded by New York twins Miki and Rhada Agrawal and their friend Antonia Dunbar. The 20-something entrepreneurs were tired of leaking through pads and didn’t want to wear tampons.
Once the sisters were in the middle of a three-legged race and had to hop off, still tied together, because one had a leak in her bathing suit. Dunbar also had to be careful when doing Kundalini yoga, where participants have to wear all white. “It was one of those things where ‘Why doesn’t underwear exist?’” said Veronica Del Rosario, director of marketing and Thinx’s chief panty pusher.
But THINX’s founders weren’t just concerned for their own hygiene, especially after they traveled to South Africa and encountered a girl named Amahle who said she wasn’t in school because it was her “week of shame.”
From there they saw an opportunity to use their business to supply women in Africa with coverage and start a conversation that could lead to the end of the menstrual taboos, both in the developing and developed world.
The organization looks to benefit women around the world beyond simply providing panties. For every pair of underwear purchased—roughly 10,000 since January—the company sends materials to make seven reusable pads to AfriPads, an organization that teaches women in Uganda to then make the pads themselves.
Del Rosario said this approach ensures sustainability, both economically and environmentally.
“A big reason we partnered with AfriPads is they do not do a drop model,” Del Rosario said. “It’s not a tampon or pad drop. As much as TOMS has revolutionized [consumer-based philanthropy] through its shoe drops, its efforts take business away from local shoemakers.”
Instead, Afripads trains local Ugandan women to make the pads, which can help them start a business, supports the economy and ultimately supplies girls with the right products to keep them in school so they can continue working toward becoming a valuable asset to their country’s economy.
Liz Granger, a journalist who has traveled to Uganda to report on how pad drops from companies like Proctor and Gamble affect the African environment, said women who have started these businesses are a pioneering group.
“A lot of times people will hide their money in the ground or under the bed,” she said. “[Groups like AfriPads] have taught the women to open bank accounts, which helps Uganda’s economy.”
For the women receiving the products, getting reusable pads also helps them advance in their education. Granger said some women have turned to prostitution to afford brand-name disposable pads.
“There’s a social cool kids’ club element to these commercial pads,” Granger said. “They’re advertised everywhere, so women will stretch themselves to acquire those products, wash them and reuse them.” Not only is that unhealthy for their bodies but also for the economy because the money goes to corporations like Johnson & Johnson and P&G, which own the majority of the market share.
Beyond the business-scape, the environment also benefits from an intentionally reusable pad system. The government doesn’t provide waste removal services more than every two to five weeks, which makes disposal practices more akin to recycling.
For example, if someone has used all the honey in a glass jar, they pass the jar along to someone else when they’re done, Granger said. Egg vendors leave behind their elephant grass containers for the next person.
“All of these things equate to a system of reuse, but when you have sanitary pads, it’s a lot of waste all at once,” Granger said. The country’s waste system can’t handle a large volume of synthetic material, resulting in clogged plumbing systems that force towns to dig more pit latrines.
Other women try to burn them in their backyard, which releases harmful chemicals in the air and results in melted globs of plastic. To successfully burn pads requires industrial-grade heat, but the only incinerators are located in Uganda’s hospitals and cost so much to run that Granger said she saw not just waste but also human organs in the parking lot.
There might be human organs in the parking lot, but a living, breathing woman’s cycles are kept completely out of public view. Ads from P&G that Granger referred to are rare in the more populated areas, and the rural area doesn’t see many magazines and roadside ads.
What does exist, however, is the idea that menstruation isn’t just unnatural but also shameful. Many girls in Africa don’t receive “the talk” and aren’t aware that all women get their periods, from their mothers to the headmistresses at their schools. Rose George, author of The Big Necessity: Adventures in the World of Human Waste, said the lack of conversation leads to them not understanding what happens the first time they get their periods. Imagine suddenly bleeding from where you urinate and not knowing why—and then finding out that the uncontrollable flow has, in some countries, barred you from entering temples, eating with others or going to school.
Even if they do understand what’s happening to them, the rest of their world is uncomfortable with it. In countries that allow girls to be in public, many still aren’t able to go to school because they don’t have access to sanitary pads. That means they miss up to a week of school each month, delaying their development and contributing to a high dropout rate. According to the Nike Foundation’s Girl Effect initiative, 85 percent of Ugandan girls leave school early.
But the problem still remains, whether they’re at home or in school—girls need sanitary products, which can be unaffordable in rural Africa and India. In desperation, they use newspapers or dirty rags that they dry out of sight in damp areas, which can lead to infection, George said.
This all comes back to the fact that menstruation is a taboo subject that leaves young girls confused and ashamed of their own body’s cycle. “It’s a whole other world where they’re decades away of talking about it like we do, and we don’t talk about it at all,” Del Rosario said.
The menstrual taboo may seem contained to the developing world, but even here in the U.S., women are encouraged to hide their periods. Ads for tampons and pads didn’t become prevalent until just a few decades ago, and even then there’s never a real description of what a woman’s menstruation cycle is (although plenty of talk about making it a “happy period”).
Although commercials can openly talk about erectile dysfunction and testosterone medication that increases sex drive in men, advertisers are restricted on what they can say about a woman’s period and body when selling pads and tampons. Blue liquid is substituted for red as a way of denying what pads are designed to absorb. As recently as 2010, three broadcast networks refused to run Kotex ads that included the word “vagina” as well as the euphemistic term “down there.”
“All modern advertising conveys the message that menstruation is harmful and shameful, and that women are dirty because of it,” George said. “Menstruation is what makes humanity continue. It should be a sign of fertility and celebration and womanhood, not a dirty polluting secret.”
Even Thinx ran into problems when trying to market its product. “These stores didn’t want to be talking about periods, so we weren’t going to be able to tell our story properly and we wouldn’t be able to talk about who we are,” Del Rosario said.
That led to a new approach for the company, which looks to make everyone more comfortable with a woman’s natural cycles. Originally sending their product out in nondescript boxes, Thinx redesigned its packaging over the summer to come with a tagline: “For women with Periods.”
“If we’re going to break the taboo, we’re going to have to break the taboo ourselves,” Del Rosario said. “We can break it by educating and talking about it. We want to inform girls here and in the developing world what’s going on with their bodies from start to finish, covering everything.”
Including “down there.”
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