For thousands of years, menstruation has been equated to womanhood in society. Getting one's first period is when a person can biologically bear children. And perhaps as civilization developed, the patriarchy saw that as an obvious reason gender roles like being a wife and mother should start.
When I was writing my book, Period Power, my favorite chapter was about the history of period ads and the narratives they perpetuated. These ads framed getting one's first period as the transition from a girl to a woman. As shown in the 1946 educational video "The Story of Menstruation," produced in partnership by Disney and Tampax for mass distribution through schools, getting your period kicked off the cycle of "life": starting to wear makeup, going on dates, getting married, having a baby. And if that baby is a daughter, that means watching the cycle go around again.
Today, many ads still seem fearful to talk about periods in a more frank and honest way. They often stray away from anatomical terms such as vulva and vagina and refer to them using euphemisms like "down there" or "lady parts." And when brands do talk about periods, they often do so in a way they are still perpetuating negative stigmas around periods by framing it as a time we should try to hide or forget about. The period industry has perpetuated these negative stigmas around menstruation in the mainstream market for a century. And if we think periods and period care are stigmatized for cis women menstruators, it's even more stigmatized for menstruators who do not identify as cis women.
Kate Steinle, the chief clinical officer at FOLX Health, notes people who are assigned female at birth, regardless of gender identity, will likely experience menstruation unless they opt to use hormone replacement therapy (HRT). "About 90% of people using injectable testosterone stop having regular monthly bleeding (periods) within six months of starting testosterone," Steinle says. "Some stop cycling within a month or two. Often people will experience changes in bleeding patterns over the course of a few months—like lighter bleeding or spotting or fewer numbers of days of bleeding—before their bleeding stops completely."
Again, biology and the effect of hormones is a separate matter to consider outside of one's gender identity. However, what Kate outlines is even with HRT (which FOLX Health is working to make more accessible), there are still instances of people who experience periods during their transition. And the period care industry can and should be inclusive of every person who menstruates.
Making Period Care Language More Inclusive
As a cis woman myself, I only know my personal experience with menstruation. I'm so thankful to have met many people who have educated me and others about the importance of gender inclusivity within period care over the last few years. This industry needs to be more period positive and inclusive, starting with renaming the entire industry in the first place. In most drugstores, the aisles with tampons and pads are labeled "feminine care." This is an incorrect title given that "feminine" is a descriptor word for gender expression. As gender and sex are two different things, it's not representative of the various bodies menstruating. To be more inclusive, we should use terms like period care or menstrual care.
As graduate student and founding August community member, Max Payne shares, "Of course femininity is nothing to erase if you don't want to. Many menstruators are women, but removing the term 'feminine' from menstrual care doesn't erase that experience. It just includes others."
Podcast host Beau Bradley also emphasizes the importance of changing current period care language. "Even just changing our verbiage ever so slightly from 'feminine' to 'menstrual' can make discussing these processes more inclusive, welcoming, and approachable," Bradley says. "The more we 'other' non-female menstruators and exclude them from resources, education, public restrooms, and even healthcare, the further we will regress as a whole. As a genderqueer human, I am misgendered enough in society. I don't need to feel it when I am alone in my bathroom, too."
Progress in the Period Care Industry
In January 2020, I began the journey of starting the lifestyle period care brand August. My co-founder and I spent the first few months building community and listening to their grievances about how periods are discussed today. One of the most common complaints from young menstruators was about the sexist and transphobic messaging around period products. Our hypothesis about needing a brand for anyone who menstruates and that is unafraid to talk about menstruation in a brutally honest way was reaffirmed with each conversation. Holding spaces for people who menstruate and don't identify as cis women remains an integral part of our brand DNA.
As we develop our brand and products, we continue to commit to fluid branding that celebrates and serves anyone who menstruates. Before launching our products in June, we collaborated with one of our advisors, Schuyler Bailar, a DEI educator and consultant, author, and speaker, to develop a gender-inclusive period talk guide. That guide was made public and influenced how we built Ask August, a free gender-affirming database of period health questions vetted by our medical board.
August is not the first brand to be gender-inclusive. So much of what I have learned and what we have been able to do was made possible by trailblazing advocates and brands. Over the last few years, the movement for more inclusive period talk has seen leaders like Cass ("The Period Prince"), who iconically posted a viral photo free-bleeding with the sign #bleedingwhiletrans, and Kenny Ethan Jones, the first trans man to front a period campaign.
Robert Garett Smith, the founder of the gender-free apparel and accessories brand and consultancy Phluid Project, says the best way to be more inclusive of transgender and nonbinary communities is to "hire them and listen. Create safe and affirming workspaces through policy, language, and culture, creating a network of allies and advocates." Phluid Project previously consulted with the P & G-owned company, This is L, on a video entitled, "Periods Don't Define People."
Folx Health has also been built on this philosophy. "In building a company that centers the transgender community, we continually make sure we center the voices, lives, and needs of transgender people," vice president of marketing Rocco Kayiatos adds. "Many members of this community work for this company, so they understand the intimate challenges and aggressions trans people face. It's important to have lived experiences informing the way we build and do this business."
Claire Coder, the founder of Aunt Flow, is on a mission to install dispensers for free period products in not only women's bathrooms but gender-neutral and family bathrooms too. Google and Netflix are just some of their clients who opted to provide period care in all bathrooms. "There are many companies, like August, working towards a better future where gender inclusivity is paramount in their initiatives, but I have yet to see it outside of Instagram ads, in the mainstream media, or big retailers," Payne says. "We have a long way to go, but the progress is there, and I'm grateful I get to see it in real-time."
Johnston-Robledo I, Chrisler JC. The menstrual mark: menstruation as social stigma. In: Bobel C, Winkler IT, Fahs B, Hasson KA, Kissling EA, Roberts T-A, eds. The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Menstruation Studies. Palgrave Macmillan; 2020.
Ahmad S, Leinung M. The response of the menstrual cycle to initiation of hormonal therapy in transgender men. Transgend Health. 2017;2(1):176-179.