Meet the Vancouver Businesses That are Fighting Period Stigma
Ahead of Menstrual Hygiene Day (May 28), get to know three companies working to shatter menstrual taboo.
May 21, 2019
I have zero recollection of my first period, but I do remember this 30-second Tampax commercial from 2003. When I first saw it, I was 11 years old—definitely a girl and not yet a woman, as Britney might say. And, to my naïve, not-yet-menstruating self, it depicted the height of womanhood: one teenage girl discretely passing a compact, inconspicuously packaged tampon to another teenage girl in the middle of what appears to be a high-school history class. I longed for the day that I, too, could discretely pass a tampon to a menstruating peer during school, only to be called to the front of the class by a teacher who would ask if I had brought enough for the whole class. “Enough for the girls,” I would cheekily (and triumphantly) retort.
Seventeen years later, I realize that the entire basis of that Tampax ad is rooted in period stigma, which deems periods as unsightly, gross or unclean, and manifests itself in the shame and embarrassment that is often felt by those who menstruate. Born from sexism and a general lack of knowledge about women’s bodies, this stigma prevents individuals who menstruate from engaging with and playing an active role in their communities and, in some cases, makes them vulnerable to violence, poverty, discrimination and other serious threats to their well-being.
It’s this same shame and embarrassment that cause women to wear specific clothes during their periods so that they may easily hide potential leaks, and to covertly conceal tampons and pads on their way to the washroom or when they pass one to a friend. It’s as if these items are E. L. James novels or baggies of illicit white powder, not essential, totally mundane products that facilitate a natural and healthy bodily process—one that a quarter of the global population experiences. Period shame is also why there are so many damn euphemisms for the word “period”: shark week, that time of the month, on the rag, a visit from Aunt Flow. Evidently, we’re not even comfortable saying “period” aloud, let alone acknowledging and addressing it for what it is.
In recent years, however, there’s been progress: there have been significant advancements in menstrual care, information about menstruation is more accessible than ever, and a film about periods was even recognized at this year’s Academy Awards, bringing to the forefront the topic of menstruation taboo and how it can affect a woman’s life. In Vancouver, there are individuals and businesses doing their part to shatter period stigma, too, by developing products, spearheading period-positive initiatives and contributing to causes that ensure menstrual-hygiene products are available for all. Ahead of Menstrual Hygiene Day (May 28), here are three to know.
Madeleine Shaw was in her mid-20s when, after years of experiencing health complications during her period, she discovered that she was allergic to the dioxins and furans in the mass-produced tampons she was using. Stuck and dissatisfied with the uncomfortable, single-use menstrual pads on the market, the Vancouver-based fashion designer decided to make her own. Instead of disposable plastics and wood pulp, however, Shaw used absorbent, washable and reusable cotton to craft her pads.
By introducing this sustainable product into her life, Shaw began to feel in tune with her period and body in a way that she hadn’t experienced before. So, seven years later, when she met her business partner, Suzanne Siemens, at a local leadership workshop, the duo decided to launch Lunapads. “The cloth pads helped change how she viewed her period and, ultimately, how she felt about her body,” explains Siemens, who is cofounder and CEO of Lunapads.
Today, the East Van-based biz is a global leader in the production of reusable, easy-to-clean menstrual products. The company has mastered and built on the fabric pads and panty-liners that Shaw created in 1993, employing cotton and patented dry-wicking top layers that help draw moisture to the pads’ highly absorbent inserts and polyester cores. They’re available in a variety of lengths, many of them with wings, and hold up to three times as much liquid as the average single-use pad. “They’re just a really comfortable alternative to using disposables,” says Siemens.
Lunapads also makes a range of period underwear, which feature built-in leak-proof linings and removable inserts that allow the wearer to bleed without worry. In addition to its hipster, brief and bikini cuts, the company recently unveiled a boxer-brief period undie that’s designed with trans men and non-binary folks in mind. It has plans to expand its size range to up to 5XL, too—a move that’s part of Lunapads’ mission to create menstrual products that are as inclusive as possible, especially when it comes to marginalized communities.
“If you’re having a period and you feel awkward or ashamed, you’re not able to fully express yourself and be fully who you are,” says Siemens. “And people should never have to be ashamed of their own body experience. So it’s important to change how we talk about periods and how we experience them, so that everyone can participate equally in society.”
Puberty can be an awkward, confusing time for girls, especially when they don’t have reliable women figures in their life or the right resources to turn to. This became all too apparent to Taran Ghatrora in 2016, when the then UBC law student teamed up with her sister, Bunny, to launch Ellebox, a subscription box service that delivered organic pads and tampons to girls and women across Canada. Soon, the pair’s inbox was flooded with questions from customers about acne, cramps and other unwelcome conditions that are exacerbated during periods.
“We discovered that it wasn’t just pads and tampons, but really that whole time period of going through puberty and buying self-care products that was really fragmented [in terms of the information that was available],” Ghatrora explains. “We felt there was room for a brand to help here.”
Now known as Blume, the Ghatroras’ business can best be described as a safe space for young women and girls who are going through puberty. The Mount Pleasant-based company continues to offer biodegradable organic-cotton pads and tampons, which ditch the bleach and synthetic fibres typically found in their mass-produced counterparts, and it’s expanded its product offering to include natural deodorants, cramp-soothing PMS oils and a benzoyl peroxide-free and salicylic acid-free blemish treatment that works to reduce inflammation and prevent acne scarring.
Education is a key component of Blume: on its website and social media channels, the company tackles topics like UTIs, polycystic ovarian syndrome and what exactly a period is, and its YouTube page offers informative video content that addresses menstruation myths, how to talk to your parents about your period, and other issues. Having recently raised $3.3 million in seed funding, Blume hopes to expand on these accessible teachings. “We cover all these period-related things in a way that is relatable,” says Ghatrora. “The education is accurate and factual, but not clinical.”
For Ghatrora, feedback from Blume’s audience is critical. The company often hears from its customers via email and Instagram DM, and it regularly conducts surveys to learn more about what young women and girls are struggling with and what kind of products they’re looking for in the self-care realm. “This is a space that has seen a lot of taboo and stigma. And people haven’t really felt comfortable talking about their periods,” says Ghatrora. “I think Blume has opened up this conversation and created this space to normalize what is a very universal experience.”
Sara Jonsdottir had no intention of starting her own business. But when her debut fashion collection, which was created and presented under the brand Revol Girl as part of Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s fashion-design program in 2016, began receiving overwhelmingly positive feedback, the 27-year-old ended up “stumbling into” entrepreneurship. “I got emails months after I was done school, saying ‘Hey, where can I buy what you showed on the runway?’” Jonsdottir recalls. “And I was like, ‘Oh, people actually want this product.’”
That product is period-proof underwear. Or, more specifically, sexy, comfortable and handmade-in-Vancouver lingerie equipped with highly absorbent cores that catch (and prevent leaks from) your monthly flow. Crafted from breathable bamboo-cotton—and featuring the occasional peek-a-boo mesh panel—Revol Girl undies come in “medium” and “heavy” options and range in size from 2XS to 5XL, so you can choose the protection level and fit that best suits your needs.
The company’s products work so well, in fact, that they’re the first period-underwear business in Canada to be formally recognized as a replacement for standard pads, tampons and cups (thanks to much lobbying on Jonsdottir’s part), making them tax exempt. “For us, that was the dream,” says the Reykjavik-born designer, who runs Revol Girl with her partner, Mayo. “That’s why we do this: to create viable replacements—not backups—for traditional menstrual products.”
Revol Girl’s most popular item is the Maya, a mid-rise brief-style undie that’s designed to accommodate the bloating that many menstruators experience during their periods. The company also makes a range of mesh-panelled bras and bralettes that may be worn on their own or with any of its undies as a matching set. For Jonsdottir, making snug, aesthetically pleasing pieces is just as important as ensuring the products function well. “There’s this huge gap in the market for period underwear that actually looks good, makes you feel good and is inclusive in sizing and style,” she says.
Jonsdottir hopes to introduce a tween line, as well as boxer-style period underwear for trans men, non-binary folks and those who may prefer more coverage. In addition to smashing period stigma by offering easy-to-use menstrual-hygiene products and encouraging discussion about periods at local maker markets, the brand uses its social media to normalize pubic hair, cellulite and other seemingly “taboo” topics. “The Revol girl is really revolutionary—that’s where the name comes from,” notes Jonsdottir. “We’re here to start a revolution and all our customers are joining us.”