In celebration of Menstrual Hygiene Day, Siobhan Lonergan (VP of Brand at THINX) and Meika Hollender (Co-founder and CEO of Sustain) chat periods, taboos, and sex-ed, and what we (and you!) can do to create change.
Siobhan: We’re both in the business of breaking taboos. Why do you think there are so many around menstruation?
Meika: Women are supposed to be these pure creatures. We’re not supposed to enjoy sex and god forbid we have blood coming out of our vaginas. I think that anything to do with a woman’s body---whether it’s her sexuality or her period---is taboo because it shows a side of her that society says she’s shouldn’t be. But that’s changing, and I think people are becoming a lot more open to conversations around women’s sexual and reproductive health. But we still have a long way to go, and obviously what you’re doing at THINX and what we’re doing at Sustain is having a very normal conversation around these issues, which I think is critical to getting rid of these issues.
Siobhan: Yeah, and I think historically, going back to when periods were demonized and considered ‘unclean,’ something to fear or hide, that’s where it all started. Just think of the nicknames menstruation has earned over the years---Aunt Flow, Shark Week, on the rag---those have been devised because people don’t want to actually say the word.
Meika: Yeah, there are some really hysterical ones from all over the world. I think in Germany they call it a “rose ceremony.”
Siobhan: The one I remember was ‘on the rag,’ which I always thought was really derogatory. It’s so demeaning, and for teenagers, it makes the subject one nobody wants to talk about, even among girls.
Meika: And the last thing we need is someone making fun of this when it can kinda suck, at least my period can. Which is why I say, from a brand perspective, if anyone can make periods suck 1% less they’ll be super-successful. Which is why I love what you all are doing -- you definitely make periods suck less.
Siobhan: So, unfortunately, taboos, myths, and misconceptions go all the way to Washington, where a lot of politicians make bad decisions for and about our bodies. Can you tell us about your lobbying venture this past Tuesday in Washington, DC?
Meika: There’s two pieces to this: First, the FDA does not require tampon manufacturers to disclose their ingredients, which is a huge problem. Congresswoman Meng’s bill would change that. What we’re trying to do is get the FDA to require manufacturers to disclose their ingredients. A woman spends, on average, six years with a tampon inside of her throughout her lifetime -- how is she unable to access information on what’s in these products? Secondly, there’s really been no long-term research on how the chemicals in traditional menstrual products affect women’s bodies, which is crazy. There’s been a bill out there for 20 years on this subject, but Congresswoman Maloney has been unable to get it passed. It’s to fund research around the long-term effects of these chemicals used in traditional tampons and pads on women’s bodies. We know what’s in our food, how do we not know what’s in these products?
Siobhan: So what can one person do about this?
Meika: While I think everything we’re trying to do in Washington is important, it’s always up to us as consumers to demand transparency. There is plenty of awareness-building that needs to be done, and that starts by asking yourself what you’re putting in your vagina.
Siobhan: I agree, and I think in a time of activism that has really come into it’s own, this year specifically, brands become the voice of people, and they empower people to help make change.
Meika: I think that a really important piece of this, something I talked about on Tuesday when I was in DC, is that it’s irresponsible for us as business leaders in this space to not be spearheading the charge. We have an audience, a voice, and, I always say, the power to change the industry. As much as I hope Sustain is a success and we sell millions of products, if I could get the ingredients in the traditional brands to change how much of a bigger impact would I be having?
Siobhan: And it takes all of those small steps to make greater change, so it’s really important. That said, it’s kind of timely that this Sunday, May 28, is Menstrual Hygiene Day and the significance of that is it’s really about creating awareness and education (that’s the theme this year), and the lack of it in certain countries. In terms of education, what are the top things you think people need to know?
Meika: Well, as we were saying earlier, I think it’s definitely a country-by-country issue when it comes to what the education is and where it needs to be. We’re super-focused on the US, so that’s where I’m most knowledgable, and for us the first step is having women understand what’s in these products. And, honestly, that’s a luxury itself. There are millions of women in this country who cannot access menstrual products, whether they’re in the prison system or low-income women who can’t use their food stamps because they’re deemed ‘non-essential items’. There is a lot of luxury that comes with being an empowered person and being in a position to actually question what’s in the products you’re using. For people who have that choice and can think about this, it’s critical to start educating women about what’s in these products, and that we don’t know their long-term impacts.
Siobhan: Another thing that I think is important to keep in mind is that there’s always something worse happening in another part of the world. What strikes me when I was thinking about this subject is that in India, for example, only half of girls know what their period is before they get it. In Uganda, a majority of kids miss school, at least three days a month, because they don’t have access to menstrual hygiene products. That’s phenomenal, and if we go back to education and see that the barrier between a girl getting an education is her period, there’s a cycle that needs to be broken and we need to raise awareness of that.
Siobhan: How important do you think education is when it comes to sexual health and freedom?
Meika: Sex is how we continue as a society, it’s how we’re all here today. The crazy thing is that I always look at it through the lens of condoms, and we still live in a time where a guy who carries a condom is a hero and a woman who does the same is a slut. And I think that goes back to when we’re educating about sex—and I do mean ‘when,’ because it’s not happening all the time; plenty of states require abstinence-only education and those are the states with the highest teen pregnancy rates, but that’s another conversation---for me the biggest part that’s left out of education is pleasure, and talking about sex as an equally pleasurable experience.
Siobhan: I agree, and if you go back to periods and education, if there’s one thing we really need to do it’s get back to the basics. If you think about it, the reason sex exists is so we can exist, and it’s the same thing for periods. If you just educate girls on the fact that this is not a shameful experience, it’s nothing that they need to hide, it’s a natural process, it starts to set the stage for the next generation of people who are self-aware and confident.
Meika: And that includes men. I feel really lucky that I grew up in a household where my dad was making tampons, so periods were literally and figuratively on the table for conversation, but it’s really about educating both men and women if we want anything to change. We need to empower women to take control of their sexual and reproductive health but we also need to raise men to not shame them for it.
Siobhan: I think men are open and ready for that conversation as well. It’s something that’s been hidden that doesn’t need to be.
Meika: Well, there were a lot of men at the Women’s March, so that made me hopeful.