Welcome to Oluna: Fashion for Menstrual Health and Equity
Hello! Welcome to Oluna. I am so glad you are here.
My name is Emmy Hancock, and I firmly believe that no one should struggle to access feminine products. Before I get into why, let's address the elephant in the room.
Period talk can be awkward. It’s no surprise given its history of stigma, shame and marginalization. Even though it is a natural body function, it has been a taboo subject for hundreds of years - we’re talking negative connotations from Aristotle’s day all the way to today.
Each language has hundreds of euphemisms (i.e. “Time of the Month,” “Shark Week,” “Aunt Flo,” & “Riding the Crimson Wave”) to avoid speaking about menstruation. TV commercials typically use an unknown blue liquid to test pad absorbency instead of red. Even the word “period” wasn’t allowed on TV until 1985 - in fact, Courtney Cox (aka Monica from Friends) was the first person to say “period” in a TV advertisement. Who knew?
So - how can something that happens to half the population be so stigmatized? At any given time, there are 800 million people menstruating globally. To break it down, if you are in a 10 person room in the U.S., chances are three people in that room have their periods. When society deems a woman’s natural body function “taboo,” it is nothing other than old fashioned misogyny. No person should consider their bodies dirty or shameful. That is not cool!
What are the Menstrual Health and Equity Issues in the United States?
Menstrual hygiene issues didn’t dawn on me until the past few years - in fact, I hardly thought about periods at all. I would have one, I would hide it - and that was the extent of my thought.
What really got me thinking was the film, I, Daniel Blake (Palme d’Or winner at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival), when a young, single mom is accused of shoplifting at a food bank. As she empties her bag, the first item she takes out is menstrual products. The scene struck a nerve. I felt terrible that I had never stopped and considered what it might be like for those who struggle to access something that seemed like a common drugstore item. Why had I never thought about menstruation as an obstacle?
I had to learn more, and I didn’t stop at just clicking around online. I had the opportunity to interview some of the most inspirational nonprofits (I Support the Girls, Free the Tampons, Girls Helping Girls Period) who opened my eyes to the extent and importance of supplying menstruation products to those in need. After speaking with individuals from these organizations, I started reading all the resources I could find. Some of my favorites are Nadya Okamoto’s Period Power, Karen Houppert's The Curse: Confronting the Last Unmentionable Taboo, Menstruation, and Jennifer Weiss Wolf’s Periods Gone Public.
From my countless conversations and research, I quickly learned that the issues run deeper than just lack of access. There were 5 main areas for improvement that resonated with me: lack of access, research, policy, education and environmental harm. While these five issues just scratch the surface, I will be going into their importance briefly below.
1. Lack of Access
When no one talks about periods, those who need help the most are scared to ask, and those who are able to help don’t know there is a need. “Period Poverty” refers to the inability to access feminine hygiene products. It is experienced by the poor, homeless and incarcerated - not only in developing countries, but especially right here in our own backyards.
- The Poor: In the U.S., women are more likely than men to experience poverty, yet current policies exclude menstrual products from public benefits, such as food stamps, SNAP or WIC, and exempt them from health insurance, Medicaid and Flexible Spending Accounts. Children add an extra burden for individuals struggling to afford products. Studies show 1 in 5 teenagers have struggled to afford period products and 1 in 4 teenagers have missed class because they do not have proper feminine hygiene care.
- The Homeless: Period products are one of the most requested basic necessities in shelters. Homeless women not only struggle to clean themselves, but often resort to using trash in lieu of sanitary products which can lead to a string of health complications.
- The Incarcerated: Most states do not require period products to be provided in jails or public schools. When someone is in the care of a state system, they should be able to attend to their basic needs. If menstrual items are not readily available (high cost to purchase) in prison, tampons and pads can become bargaining chips that highlight the inmates’ inability to make choices for themselves and create harmful power politics.
2. Lack of Research
Our ability to innovate and fix problems around menstruation is hurt by our inability to easily discuss periods. Period taboos can lead to a late diagnosis of reproductive health problems such as endometriosis, adenomyosis and uterine fibroids. When women suffer in silence, the demand for research into solutions goes unheard. On a product level, the FDA does not require period brands to disclose their ingredients. As an item that is inserted into the most absorbent part of the body, it is surprising to learn that the primary composition is bleached rayon, which is commonly linked to breast cancer, endometriosis and infertility. Toxic Shock Syndrome, a life-threatening infection linked to prolonged tampon exposure, has harmed and killed women for the past 30 years. In fact, the wave of cases spurred the creation of the Robin Danielson Act, which would require ingredients to be printed on product packaging, but it was struck down TEN different times in the House of Representatives. To make matters worse, most national studies about menstruation are funded by corporate brands. Are we comfortable knowing the majority of people researching this topic are the ones selling it?
3. Lack of Policy
When women lack a voice in government, they cannot advocate for pro-female policies. Women are significantly underrepresented in the United States government - making up just 19.3% of national legislative positions, which puts the US in 90th place globally. Yikes. For example, period products are not exempt from sales tax in the majority of states whereas other non-essential products like Pop-Tarts (California), bingo supplies (Missouri), arcade game tokens (Utah), garter belts (Vermont) and gun club memberships (Wisconsin) are eligible for this benefit. As Barack Obama said, “I have no idea why states would tax these as luxury items...I suspect it’s because men were making the laws when these taxes were passed.”The fact remains that there are deeply embedded gender inequality structures in a seemingly neutral tax system.
4. Lack of Education
We should educate our children at an early age about menstrual health. Most early puberty education in the school system chooses to separate boys and girls to discuss gender specific development. Separate classes creates a culture of secrecy surrounding menstruation for girls, and shuts boys out of the conversation. We have the opportunity to change the narrative before harmful stigma is formed. By starting early, there is hope for discourse in the next generation.
5. Environmental Harm
Plastic packaging and toxins in disposable menstrual products pollute our environment. An estimated 12 billion pads and seven billion tampons end up in landfills annually. And that’s not including the oceans. As products designed not to break down in moisture - period products take longer to disintegrate - turning into microplastics that are harmful to the environment. Toxins in the fabric (that we have previously mentioned hurt humans) wreak havoc on our soil and water supplies. Product innovation can increase sustainability and reduce waste.
How to Advocate for Menstrual Health and Equity
After processing all of this information, I felt upset, helpless, and full of self doubt. I knew these were significant issues, but one thought crept back: Why should we focus our efforts on periods, when there are “more pressing issues” like world hunger, economic development, and lack of education?
And then....brain blast. I realized that all of the above can be helped and improved through the lens of menstrual rights. It is a concrete starting point in tackling each larger problem, underscored and emphasized by the United Nations declaring menstrual health a public health, gender equity, and human rights issue.
Now you may be thinking to yourself, how are basic rights and gender equality related? A quick thought exercise: Every public bathroom has toilet paper, soap, and paper towels. Why not menstrual products? When men walk into the bathroom, they have everything they need to be clean and hygienic. Why don’t women?
Or how about this one: Why do colleges and universities create budgets for free condoms but not period products?
We must ensure that women’s basic rights are covered so that they can be equal players in society. Gender equality is all about giving each person an equal opportunity to find and manifest their full potential. Ref: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs - physiological needs must be met to reach self-actualization. Each person deserves to feel clean, confident, and dignified. They deserve to go about their lives without having to worry about a period. No one should be at a civic disadvantage because they cannot access period products due to financial reasons or if they find themselves in a situation where they are not readily available. (Especially when periods arrive unexpectedly and unplanned!)
Beyond all of this - the menstrual movement is quite possibly the coolest idea to get behind because it embodies current attitudes of fourth wave intersectional feminism (the acknowledgement that barriers to gender equality vary according to other aspects of a woman’s identity.) No matter what race, class, gender identity, sexuality, or political party you are - you have or know someone who menstruates. It is the great equalizer. That being said, the language we use is so important. We must keep in mind that not all women menstruate and not all who menstruate are women. We will strive to be inclusive of all period experiences and engage with others from sincere places of compassion and respect.
So, let’s do this!
Oluna is a hyper-pop, super fun call to action.
When others smile, we do too. I have designed these pants to be ultra comfortable and stylish. Every pair of pants purchased provides a low income American with an entire year’s worth of the menstrual tools they need to achieve their full potential as well as educational tools to effectively and safely use the products.
I recognize that while helpful to those in need, the year’s supply of products only goes so far. For this reason, I have also dedicated half of the “Oluna Collection” proceeds to fund menstrual health and policy initiatives so that we can begin to create a foundation for long term, meaningful change.
Spread the love, spread the word.
XOXO - Emmy