‘Period underwear’ offers a new way of managing your period, at the same time as addressing the social and environmental issues that come with conventional methods of menstrual management.
The problem with pads and tampons
Period management has long been due for an overhaul. Early iterations of disposable pads, made from wood pulp bandages, date from the 1880s, while in 1931 American physician Dr. Earle Haas patented the modern tampon, a cotton-and-cardboard version of something women had been using since the days of Ancient Egypt.
Then there’s the hefty ecological cost of single-use pads and tampons. They often contain non-biodegradable materials, including polyethylene and other plastics. According to one estimate, a woman uses 17,000 pads and tampons in her lifetime - a whole lot of long-lasting waste.
And these products are expensive. In Australia pads and tampons are subject to the GST because someone in the tax department decided because he never had cause to purchase ‘feminine hygiene’ products that they were a non-essential item, something to which every woman on the planet who has had a period would attest otherwise.
The regular cost of buying pads and tampons creates another set of social problems. Women who are homeless or who live in shelters have trouble affording menstrual hygiene products, and often have to resort to unsatisfactory DIY methods to manage their period.
Clearly, this suboptimal set of circumstances is ripe for innovation. Menstrual cups, usually made from silicon, are fast becoming an alternative to disposable period products, and now we have period underwear too.
How period underwear works
Period underwear uses antimicrobial, moisture-wicking layers of fabric to absorb up to 10 millilitres of blood. Australian brand Modibodi offers light (5ml) and medium (8-10ml) flow sets of underwear made from bamboo and microfibre. Designed to be leak and stain resistant, they can be used alone (‘free-bleeding’), or as a backup to a menstrual cup. In Australia, a pair will set you back between $25 and $35.
While period underwear may sound off-putting to a woman accustomed to pads and tampons, there is a lot of interest for the product among the community, says Tina Chan from online retailer Nourished Life. “Once we launched Modibodi on Nourished Life it was crazy how popular this concept was,” she enthuses. “It's clear that Australian women wanted period underwear.”
Modibodi gives back to the community by working with groups like Share the Dignity. “The goal of Share the Dignity is for all Australians to work together to give homeless women access to feminine hygiene products,” says Liana Lorenzato, Marketing & Public Relations Manager at Modibodi. Lorenzato says Modibodi donates a percentage of every order to manufacture garments that are given directly to women across Australia living in shelters, as well as allowing customers to purchase Modibodi underwear through their ‘power of purchase’ campaign.
Social activism is also central to the vision of Thinx, a period underwear company launched by ‘underwear activist’ Miki Agrawal in the US in 2015. Immediately the forward-thinking company started pushing boundaries, with its decidedly non-sexualised, but clever and frank, ads deemed too risqué for the New York subway (the decision was later overturned).
Agrawal said she had an ‘aha moment’ on a holiday in South Africa when she met a girl who was out of school because she had her period – her “week of shame”. Agrawal was staggered to learn that one in 10 girls in Africa miss school each month due to menstruation, either because they don’t have access to suitable menstrual hygiene products, or they don’t have access to a space to change them. Girls often use rags when they can, or toilet paper, cotton, wool, banana fibre or newspaper when they can’t. When they skip lessons the girls fall behind, increasing the likelihood they will leave school completely.
The experience inspired Agrawal to partner with AFRIpads, a Ugandan-based group that provides girls with basic menstrual hygiene products. For every pair of underwear sold, Thinx sends funds to AFRIpads to produce locally made, reusable pads for women and girls in developing countries. “Feminine hygiene and menstruation management are root causes for cyclical poverty, and nobody talks about it because it’s taboo,” she said.
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