How These 5 Women Are Changing The Way We Deal With Periods

Photographed by Tayler Smith.
This story was originally published on Jun. 17, 2016.

Periods are a totally normal part of human life. Yet, somewhere along the line, through centuries of stigma, we've forgotten that. Whether you think periods are gross, a painful nightmare, or a beautiful representation of what our bodies can do is completely up to you. But the one thing we can't stand any longer is being shamed for menstruating.

For too long, that shame has kept women silent — and discouraged any innovation in making periods less of a hassle. Fortunately, that's beginning to change. We've seen a plethora of period-tracking apps, tampon-subscription boxes, and a variety of menstrual cups, tampons, and gadgets become available in recent years. And that's just the beginning.

Ahead, we talked to five women who are actively changing the way we deal with periods — both the actual physical experience and the stigma that comes with that — about their products and the challenges they faced in bringing their inventions to the world.
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Photo: Courtesy of Clue.
Ida Tin

Product: Clue, a non-gendered app that helps track your periods and everything that comes with them.

What have been the major obstacles in getting Clue out there?
"The biggest initial obstacle was demonstrating the value and opportunity of a women’s health app in what is a vastly male-dominated tech scene. But at Clue, we believe that family planning and fertility affect 100% of the population. Even if you don’t experience a menstrual cycle yourself, you are almost certainly close to someone who does. Women may be underrepresented in tech, but there is no denying that women are starting to make a name for themselves within the industry — digital female health is one of the fastest-growing sectors."

What have you learned about periods through the creation of Clue?
"That period-tracking isn't new; it's something women have been doing throughout history, which is so important, as every cycle is unique. Knowing when your next period is coming is critical information at every stage of life, for planning both your daily life and your reproductive life."


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Photo: Courtesy of Clue.
What can we do to continue normalizing periods?
"I think it's important that women's health keeps moving away from its status as a 'niche.' I remember people said that about Clue when I started, and I always thought, How can a product for half the world's population be niche? So women's health needs champions — [including] startups like ours, and doctors and researchers, and of course patients themselves — to continue to be pushed into the spotlight and given the proper support and resources.

"Periods are not something we should have to talk about in hushed tones. You wouldn’t think twice to mention that you have a headache or sore throat, for example. And when people feel as comfortable talking about cramps or other period-related symptoms, only then have we managed to fully break down the stigma surrounding them."
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Photo: Courtesy of Flex.
Lauren Schulte

Product: Flex, a small, secure "menstrual disc."

Where did the idea for Flex come from?
"I have spent 25% of my life on my period, and about another 25% with a persistent yeast infection. It wasn't until I moved to California about six years ago that a nurse practitioner brought it to my attention that my persistent infection and vaginal discomfort could be a result of tampons, which I was using every month for my period.

"Switching to natural tampons did not help. Years later, I learned about menstrual cups and actually tried five different kinds. My yeast infections went away, but I found the cups difficult to insert and remove, and I didn't love the idea of rinsing and reusing them for five years. I felt like it was kind of inconvenient."

Did you have to correct any misconceptions during the development of Flex?
"Yes, a lot... In the process, I realized my mission was talking to both men and women about periods and menstruation and answering a lot of questions. It wasn’t always easy to do that. I'm naturally a pretty introverted person. Sometimes men would just walk away from me mid-conversation.

"But I met other men who, at bars or parties with friends, would just start crying and telling me these questions they’ve suffered with. Or they haven’t been able to connect with their partner about her period because she feels uncomfortable and they feel embarrassed. We’ve received letters from dads, thanking us for what we’re doing for their daughters, because they’ve struggled with ways to talk to their daughters about reproductive health.

"On the female side, there's also a lot of misunderstanding, whether it has to do with not understanding that period sex isn’t any more dangerous than regular sex, or having a lot of questions about anatomy. When I tell women that Flex works by creating a barrier between their cervix and their vaginal canal, a lot of women don’t know where their cervix is."
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Photo: Courtesy of Flex.
What can we do to continue normalizing periods?
"I think that it really starts with the education of children. We made a video for Menstrual Hygiene Day where we talked to three kids that had never heard about periods. The girl was 7 and the boys were 10. At the end of the video, they can describe what menstruation is. And we asked them if they thought it was weird, and they said no. They knew instinctively; it's not weird, because it happens to all women... So I really think better education is the way to stop stigma for women in general."
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Photo: Courtesy of Thinx.
Miki Agrawal

Product: Thinx, underwear that comfortably absorbs your menstrual flow. Icon pee-proof undies and Tushy bidet attachment coming soon.

What kind of period stigma have you noticed in your own life?
"Every time I talk about it, people are giggling like schoolchildren. Especially as we were starting the company, it was still very uncomfortable to talk about. Any time there was a guy in the room, they would kind of glance over several times like, Why are you talking about this in front of a guy?

"We're still facing it as a growing company, even though we've hit this period-and-feminism turning point. We can barely work with modeling agencies, we still can't advertise in places like taxis, and we still can’t be on morning shows, because it's still too taboo. There’s still so many stigmas that we’re fighting every day."
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Photo: Courtesy of Thinx.
What can we be doing to normalize periods?
"I think we can definitely educate men and women together, and not separate women to talk about it. It's the thing that perpetuates humanity and creates human life, so it shouldn’t be something you separate men and women to do.

"[It should be an opportunity] to create a real celebratory moment for women, where men champion women during that time and say, 'Wow, you are champions of humanity by carrying children, and that blood is critical. How can we support you?' I think we’re not doing enough to bring men and women together to talk about it in one room."
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Photo: Courtesy of Panty Prop.
Crystal Etienne

Product: Panty Prop, panties and swimwear that hold pads in place.

What has the response been like so far?
"It’s worked out very well; people are just intrigued. Prior to me having the swimwear, no one thought they could swim on their period. There’s so many people who are sanitary pad wearers and they have just been forgotten. They can’t wear tampons or a free-bleed underwear because they don't want to clean the blood. You have a whole community of people who can’t use a cup or tampon due to a health issue, like fibroids or cysts, or among the special-needs community."


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Photo: Courtesy of Panty Prop.
What have been the major obstacles in getting Panty Prop out there?
"Getting it made was an obstacle because people thought I was crazy... A lot of production companies and factories that I was first dealing with...thought it was a joke, because it’s basically a hole in your underwear."

What can we be doing to normalize periods?
"Just speaking up if you’re uncomfortable. There’s so many people who don’t know about the other options that are out there, like the Panty Prop or Thinx. But just being open and talking about it is taking away the [discomfort]. We don’t have to be uncomfortable every month."
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Photo: Courtesy of Naama Bloom.
Naama Bloom

Product: Hello Flo, monthly deliveries of tampons and goodies.

Where did the original idea for Hello Flo come from and how has it evolved since then?
"The initial idea, almost four years ago...was sending tampons through the mail. It was pretty simple; it was just thinking What’s an annoying thing to buy that could be made better?

"But then, once I released the Camp Gyno video, I got thousands of emails from women around the world. It became clear after that (and after the First Moon Party video) that what people wanted was a new approach to how we talk about [periods]. So over the last few years, the business has turned much more into one where we publish content about women's health topics in general. And we don't shy away from topics that aren’t considered polite over dinner conversation, but that we think women really need to know."
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Photo: Courtesy of Hello Flo.
Did you encounter any period stigma when creating Hello Flo?
"The biggest stigma is that no one talks about what a period actually is. It's blood coming out of your vagina. So what we do is just talk about that. It's just being honest. My perspective is that, the more honest we can be with people about what’s going on in their bodies, the more confident they can be when they're faced with it."
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