The new feminine-hygiene market lays on a guilt trip.
Diana Sierra was in Ruhiira, Uganda, in 2011, coaching entrepreneurs on product design, when a local teacher told her something startling: Many of the teacher’s female students skipped school during their period because they lacked adequate feminine-hygiene products. Sierra, who’s designed everything from pacifiers to perfume bottles, saw a humanitarian and design imperative: How could she give impoverished women a high-quality, attractive feminine- hygiene product on par with what’s available to women in the developed world? Her solution: the Empower Panty, a pair of lacy, colorful “period underwear” with a removable, quick-drying pad. Preorders ship soon; for each one bought in the U.S., she’ll donate another to a woman in need. “If you want to create gender equality,” says Sierra, 36, whose company, Be Girl, has been empowered with $1 million in venture capital, “you have to start creating equality within gender.”
The Empower Panty sounds revolutionary, but it’s not. It’s only part of an uprising, one that’s been cheered in style pages and promoted by the more than a dozen companies that have—there’s really only one word to describe it—flooded the feminine- hygiene market since 2012, all eager to help women deal with that time of the month. Surely you’ve seen the ads for period panties, organic tampons, and monthly subscription services that mail hygiene products to your door with soothing treats such as tea and chocolate. It’s not like there wasn’t a need: Packaged-goods conglomerates have barely changed their wares in decades, and their messaging, with perky, smiling women in white pants, is silly and condescending.
Almost all the new startups stress that they’re not just helping women in the First World; they’re on a social mission, and they want you to join in! Like Be Girl, period-underwear company Thinx and organic tampon companies Cora and Conscious Period employ a version of the “one-for-one” model. Thinx donates money to Afripads, which helps Ugandan women manufacture and sell locally made sanitary pads; Dear Kate, another period-underwear startup, gives money to fund science, technology, engineering, and math education for girls; Jessica Alba’s Honest donates sanitary supplies to homeless women in Africa.
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