While the menstrual cycle is a regular event for a whole lot of us, it is not something that is talked about much. Discussion is camouflaged by euphemism – ‘my time of the month’, ‘the monthly curse’ – and this squeamishness extends, of course, to advertising, and its substitution of a weird blue liquid for anything remotely resembling blood when promoting feminine hygiene products.
This awkwardness may also be to blame for a lack of innovation in products to deal with periods. Tampons and towels may be widely available – in the developed world at least – but there’s a notable absence of anything that might make you feel very good about yourself while you have your period. This is where Thinx comes in: an underwear line that is stylish and attractive but that can also handle menstrual blood – in some styles, up to two tampons’ worth – without leaks.
The idea for the brand was first sparked in 2005, when Thinx co-founder Miki Agrawal was taking part in a three-legged race at her family barbecue, defending the title she held alongside her twin sister Radha. “In the middle of the race, my sister started her period, and we had to finish and run to the bathroom – still tied to each other – so my sister could wash out her bathing suit bottoms,” she says. “That’s when the idea hit: we said, ‘what if we could create a pair of underwear that never leaks, that never stained or absorbed blood, that supported women every day of the month’.”
Agrawal was busy with her other businesses at the time – including two restaurants in New York – so the idea was shelved until 2010 when, on visiting South Africa for the World Cup, she discovered the far more serious challenges that periods present to girls in the developing world. “100 million girls are missing one week of school when they have their period,” she says. “That’s when we said, ‘it’s time to resurrect the period product’.”
Thinx now has a range of items to suit all underwear tastes, from thongs to high-waist knickers. The company’s website at shethinx.com answers all the questions you might have about how they work – yes, you can wash them and the site shows how – and also explains the company’s wider social mission to help women and girls in the developing world. With each pair of Thinx bought, funds are sent to a partner business in Uganda, AFRIpads, which hires local women and trains them to both sew and sell washable, reusable cloth pads.
One of the first thoughts that Thinx provokes is ‘how did this product not already exist?’ But it didn’t, at least not in any comparable form. “There were a few products that were just terrible, that looked like diapers,” explains Agrawal. “There was nothing that we would ever wear.”
The tech took over three years to develop, and is understandably pretty elaborate, in order to be dry and anti-microbial. “It has to be absorbent, then it has to be leak-proof,” says Agrawal. “It took us a very long time to find all the right technologies, to put them in the intimate category, in a breathable product … there are so many considerations.”
The company soft launched in 2014, and since then, according to Agrawal, “has gone viral five times internationally”. This ‘viral’ effect is largely down to the subject matter, and because Thinx has come up with a product that is both efficient and attractive. The spikes in interest have varied in style and effect: initially the company just became a rabid talking point on Reddit and Tumblr; next a Forbes article – titled ‘Can these panties disrupt the $15 billion feminine hygiene market?’ – caused a storm of shares.
The third spike was more discomforting, coming after the Metropolitan Transport Authority in New York attempted to ban Thinx’s advertising. This was because, says Agrawal, “of the use of the word ‘period’ and for using food to represent, very artfully, the anatomy”.
Thinx went to the press with the story. “Obviously in that moment I did not really know what that meant, and whether anyone would pick up the story at all,” she recalls. “I just kind of threatened them and it ended up getting picked up and going viral. That was obviously completely unpredictable but it worked out and really put us on the map, it was great.
“In hindsight, it was the best thing that could possibly have ever happened to us, but in the moment it was a fight,” she recalls. “It definitely made us realise that quite possibly the most progressive city in the whole world, New York, still has a patriarchal hold, we’re still bound by the patriarchy in a lot of ways.”
Thinx won that battle, and currently has ad campaigns running in two major stations in the city plus on subway cabs, but further viral storms have followed: when the company launched a short film titled The Week, that “aims to break the menstrual taboo”, and also when they launched a transgender product and campaign.
Agrawal puts much of the attention that Thinx attracts in the media down to the fact that the company is tackling a taboo. “I think the subject of periods is controversial to begin with and so as a result people want to talk about that kind of stuff,” she says. “Because we’re breaking a taboo that’s been dormant for so many years, and all of sudden we’re bringing it to the forefront of conversation, it makes it a newsworthy subject. That’s why I would say we’ve had the luck of having these viral instances. We’re just putting out really great work.”
Agrawal hasn’t been put off tackling further awkward subjects either: alongside Thinx she is responsible for two other products that address social taboos: Icon, pee-proof underwear “for women who pee a little bit,” explains Agrawal, “we really want to offer a product that makes a woman feel like a woman, even after she’s given birth to a couple of kids and can’t fully control her bladder”; and Tushy, a cheap bidet attachment, which aims to raise the wider issue of “looking at the status quo of the way we wipe ourselves”, from both a health and sustainability perspective.
These are subjects that might raise smirks or embarrassed shrugs but are surely ones that need to be discussed, and, perhaps more importantly, where design can play a direct role in making our everyday lives better. And Agrawal is not afraid to put the politics of them front and centre in her businesses. “Our team [at Thinx] is a team of 30 feminists,” she says. “Mostly women, four men…. The authenticity is very apparent, in our campaigns, in how we represent ourselves … we’re not trying to be something we’re not.
“We’re not saying ‘time of the month’, we’re saying ‘period’,” she concludes. “Every human being is here because of the period.”
This article originally appeared in the April ’16 issue of Creative Review, which is themed around Health. More info on the issue is here.