6 Menstruation Innovations Changing the Conversation, Period

There's lots of good news on the menstruation front.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock / Fotos593

#PeriodsAreNotAnInsult is the hashtag that sprung up after Donald Trump, who’s separated by six degrees from almost everything terrible, said that Megyn Kelly had "blood coming out of her wherever." The comment inspired one woman to paint a portrait of the billionaire using her own period blood. But perhaps more importantly, the sentiment behind Trump’s words—the notion that you must be “on the rag” if you don’t smile and STFU and other endless culturally conveyed ideas about periods being "icky”—is being challenged left and right in this moment.

Kiran Gandhi, a musician who has drummed for M.I.A., a Harvard Business School alum and a general badass, ran the London Marathon without a pad or a tampon, an event that made international headlines because that’s how weird we are about a totally normal biological process. "It would have been way too uncomfortable to worry about a tampon for 26.2 miles," Gandhi wrote on her website. "I ran with blood dripping down my legs for sisters who don’t have access to tampons and sisters who, despite cramping and pain, hide it away and pretend like it doesn’t exist. I ran to say, it does exist, and we overcome it every day."

Artist Rapi Kaur had a picture that showed her with visible menstrual leak on her pants removed, twice, from Instagram (though it violated none of the site’s policies), until social media uproar resulted in the company issuing an apology. “Their patriarchy is leaking. Their misogyny is leaking. We will not be censored,” Kaur wrote in a Facebook post. Five women sued the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance for the tampon tax, labeling it “a vestige of another era.”

Here are six more great things happening on the period frontier!

1. Thinx: Panties for your period.

Until recently, the terms “period” and “panties” were only used together to describe women’s sacrificial underwear: panties chosen, usually because they’ve seen better days, for menstrual periods because staining them won’t matter. That’s because menstrual overflows are pretty common. According to Thinx, “80 percent of American women have had accidents during, and have expressed anxiety about, their periods.” Company CEO and cofounder Miki Agrawal told Forbes that discomfort, coupled with a culture that tells women menstruation is “crass and disgusting,” is why she developed Thinx period underwear. The panties can replace menstrual pads or serve as backups for tampons, though a few intrepid journalists have worn them without reinforcements and reported they totally work, even on super heavy days. (Per the website, “every pair of Thinx has a top layer that wicks all liquid into the über thin absorption layer right beneath it, so that you feel super dry.”) Washing instructions sound easy (rinse, cold wash, hang dry) and makes them much more eco friendly than disposable pads and tampons. Thinx come in six different styles, from hiphugger to thong, each correlating directly with how heavy your flow is on a given day, and will run you $24 to $38. A portion of each sale goes to Uganda-based AFRIpads, which teaches local women to manufacture and sell reusable menstrual pads. Forbes points to a United Nations report indicating just “43 percent of girls in developing nations attend secondary school” due to lack of access to sanitary products, a problem AFRIpads purportedly seeks to address

2. Bleed from your “wherever” onto Donald Trump’s face.

The GOP’s assault on reproductive rights has been in overdrive the last few years, with 231 anti-abortion laws clearing state legislatures between the 2010 midterms and the end of 2015, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Sarah Palatnik, founder of Cute Fruit Undies, decided that if the politicians behind those bills are so hellbent on inserting themselves into the intimate decisions women make about their bodies, they should get as up close and personal as possible. To that end, Palatnik created Bloody Marys, period underwear adorned with the face of what she calls a “blood dumpster”—“a politician who has tried in the past or who is currently trying to pass legislation that hinders women’s reproductive rights and in doing so has had their face wind up in the crotch of a pair of bloody marys period panties.” The website displays several choices—Rick Santorum, Rand Paul, Sarah Palin, John Kasich, Mike Huckabee, Tom Emmer, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush and Donald Trump—along with links detailing each pol’s anti-choice bills, votes and promises. (Palatnik says there are more to come, and invites people to email “reproductive rights offenders” they’d like to see featured.) The project has been wildly popular, and Palatnik’s Etsy page now advises shoppers that a backlog means they’ll have a wait a bit longer for their underwear to arrive. The complimentary attachable heating pads that come with each order make it sound worth the wait.

3. A tampon alternative that makes period sex no-mess.

Attitudes about period sex vary widely, not just because of prudish ideas around menstruation, or squeamishness about blood in general, but because it’s straight-up messy. Enter Flex, a new menstrual cup and tampon alternative that sits right against the cervix. As Bustle notes, “this creates a leak-proof seal while leaving the vaginal canal free—unlike a tampon or cup, which plugs up a woman's vaginal canal.” According to the company, the disposable disc can be worn for up to 12 hours, is “BPA-free, hypoallergenic, and is not associated with toxic shock syndrome.” Founder and CEO Lauren Schulte told Bustle, “Flex allows couples who wouldn't have previously had period sex a new opportunity to talk about it and try it...And for those of us who were already comfortable having period sex, Flex saves our white sheets and allows us to enjoy the moment more, instead of running to the shower.” Blood hounds—um, these guys—will be disappointed with this innovation (sorry guys) but a lot of people will be elated, I suspect.

4. Blood samples can be taken from tampons.

There are people who pass out at the mere sight of needles, and you’d be hard pressed to find people who are enthusiastic about the pricks associated with having blood taken. Harvard engineer Ridhi Tariyal has figured out a brilliant alternative: taking blood samples from tampons. As the New York Times notes, this idea seems so obvious on its face, it’s hard to understand why no one had it before— until you consider how few in Tariyal’s field are women. (Makes sense that if you don’t use tampons, you wouldn’t think much about unexplored applications for them.) Intially, Tariyal and her business partner Stephen Gire pitched investors on the idea that blood-extraction prototype could be used by women, in the privacy of their own homes, to test for STDs and STIs, but they got few bites. Nearly all venture capitalists are men, and sexism played no small part in the resistance to Gire and Tariyal’s idea. “[W]hen you say that you’re going to build a company around menstrual blood,” Gire told the Times, “people think you’re joking.” The responses they got are a pretty vivid idea of what women inventors creating products for women are up against:

“Someone told us that the product would only help women, and women are only half the population—so what was the point?” Ms. Tariyal said. Other potential funders wanted to reimagine their technology as a product for men: Was there some way to re-engineer it so that it would measure testosterone? And one guy suggested they develop a machine that a man could use to covertly test the health of his sexual partners, because “women are liars” who spread venereal diseases.

Gire and Tariyal decided to retool their approach, and noted that the blood samples could also be used to test for conditions such as cancer, endometriosis, iron deficiencies, bone loss, and several other issues. With the change in vision and scope of uses, the prototype garnered new interest from potential funders. Now, NextGen Jane—that’s the name of their startup—is continuing development and may radically change how a number of illnesses are diagnosed in women.

5. The end of women paying more for a necessary product.

Numerous outlets dubbed 2015 the year of the period (really, do a Google search), mostly for the innovations listed above, which went hand-in-hand with a broader conversation about menstruation. One topic that kept rising to the top of our feeds was the cost of tampons; they’re not inexpensive, and 40 states tax them to boot. That’s extra annoying considering some of those same states don’t tax inessentials such as candy, soda or hot air balloon rides. Yet menstruating women have to fork over an extra fee for a product that is absolutely and unquestionably necessary. That cost can be particularly burdensome for poor women; the Washington Post points to a report of a woman who had to sell her food stamps to pay for tampons.

Thankfully, sustained outcry is starting to make a difference. As the Post notes:

In January, California introduced a bill to slash taxes from menstrual products in the state. Similar bills have arrived in New York, Ohio, Utah and Virginia. On the city level, Chicago could also soon waive the taxes, which city leaders called “unfair” and “discriminatory.” The effort to make menstrual products more accessible has hit schools, too. New York City’s Education Department announced that 25 public schools will start offering free tampons and pads to students...Columbia University [will] start offering free menstrual products in its health center after spring break, following the leads of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Minnesota.

That’s great news. Also great? This ad showing how commercials would look if men had periods. 

6. Ensure politicians who think they know what’s best for women’s bodies are aware of exactly how their bodies are doing.   

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence recently signed a law that greatly restricts access to abortion, because apparently, Mike Pence thinks he should tell women what to do with their bodies. In response, women have been calling Pence’s office to tell him—without skimming over the details—precisely what’s happening with their lady parts. The satirical reasoning goes, since Pence is so eager to advise on and legislate women's vaginas, it’s best we all keep him in the loop on precisely how things are going with them. The Facebook group Periods for Pence, which got the whole movement started, is absolutely genius. Here’s the post that launched it all:

The results have been nothing short of awesome. Women have been calling and emailing Pence's office, offering information and requesting the governor provide, in his infinite wisdom on women's reproductive health, insights on next steps. Here are a few Facebook message examples:

Here are some of the many great tweets at Periods for Pence:

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Kali Holloway is a senior writing fellow and the senior director of Make It Right, a project of the Independent Media Institute.