In the past several years, as “Girlboss” has become standard shorthand in startup culture and beyond, the language of “female founded” companies has been used to mask a wide range of workplace concerns, including harassment, toxic work environments, and allegations of abuse. Increasingly, too, it’s impacting consumer behavior as well as the literal products we purchase. In 2016, former employees of Thinx, whose menstrual underpants and cheeky branding offered the promise of taboo-busting and innovation in the face of the #patriarchy, revealed it to be a toxic workplace, and founder Miki Agrawal, was ultimately pushed out. Thinx’s premise was simple and full of promise: Let’s make period underwear that make women feel good. Then, based on feedback about the exclusivity of focusing on women as consumers, the company shifted its branding to target people with periods, a note that suggested that Thinx really did put its consumer first.
In 2017, Hilary George-Parkin reported in Racked that Thinx, despite its promise of feminism, failed its employees: “[B]ehind the scenes, many current and former employees paint a picture of dysfunction and hypocrisy, with clashes between Agrawal and key members of her team, employment policies that seem to fly in the face of the company’s women-first messaging, and an increasingly volatile work environment that’s led many of those who were instrumental in creating the brand to tender their resignations.”
Now, scientists have found that Thinx, which prides itself on being a healthy, “vag-tastic” wellness-oriented brand, harbors toxic chemicals in its products. This month, Jessian Choy, a journalist for Sierra, Sierra Club’s national magazine, shared the results of an experiment she conducted: Choy mailed multiple pairs of period underwear to a scientist and asked them to test for harmful chemicals. The brand found to be toxic? Thinx. Choy wrote,
”My Thinx “organic” brief and “organic” BTWN Shorty underwear for teens had high levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), especially on the inside layers of the crotch. Some PFAS are associated with cancer, decreased immune response to vaccines, decreased fertility, and more. Exposure to PFAS at even the lowest concentrations has been shown to harm human health. The crotch in my underwear had 3,264 parts per million (ppm), and the one for teens had 2,053 ppm, according to Peaslee’s particle induced gamma ray emission (PIGE) spectroscopy test. That’s high enough to suggest they were intentionally manufactured with PFAS.”
As consumers, we have so many brands competing for our dollars and promising to out-green other companies’ products that at a certain point we have to take a leap of faith. “We don’t have a choice but to trust,” Choy told me, “unless we do what I did, which wasn’t easy and wasn’t something I even wanted to do. How much choice do we have? Either you do all of this deep research, or you trust [the brands]. I saw [Thinx] ads, and it was in the media a lot, and … I always told myself, ‘I don’t want to know what’s in this product, knowing what I know about toxins, stain- resistant chemicals, and moisture-resistant chemicals.”
Thinx, of course, insists its products are good for you. A “Thinx Piece” on the company’s website responding to Choy’s findings and and customer concerns about them (“How We Ensure Thinx Are Body-Safe”) maintains that “Our chemical testing is… done through a third party to ensure it’s honest and objective, and we’re proud of the fact that this testing has never detected any harmful chemical levels in Thinx underwear.” To Choy’s allegation that the products include polyfluoroalkyl substances; Thinx counters that with “All Thinx underwear are REACH and OEKO-TEX® certified … which includes testing for a range of toxic chemicals like PFAS (polyfluoroalkyl substances) that are linked to scary health problems like cancer and fertility issues.”
Choy told Bitch she didn’t set out to target Thinx; overall, she’s invested in using her research to shift the U.S. manufacturing policies on chemicals policy. She emphasizes that it shouldn’t be the responsibility of the consumer to undertake the work she did—seven months of research, collaboration with researchers and scientists, reliance on experts to translate data, and seeking out actually nontoxic menstrual products. “There’s even more consumers can do,” Choy says, noting that she’s working on a follow-up piece that will help others do just that, “but it’s something we shouldn’t have to do. At first glance, [Thinx] sounds great, but the devil really is in the details.” Even if Thinx isn’t intentionally putting toxic products into the world, Choy says, it’s still a problem that brands are launching products without fully exploring—and being transparent about— what they’re made of. “It’s a supply-chain issue.”
What makes the Sierra report so concerning is that period underwear can be a godsend for some people. “I learned about them on Instagram and then in [the podcast] The Friend Zone,” says Ann Aly, a researcher and queer Arab American woman. “I was curious about absorbent underwear because I spot [with] my IUD, but not enough for pads or tampons.” “I learned about Thinx a few years ago when they first came out,” says Nicole Lane, a 29-year-old journalist in Chicago. “They were offering an affordable bundle of underwear (thong, nude, regular) at the time, so I went in and purchased them. As someone who struggled with vaginismus for eight years, I wasn’t able to ever wear tampons. I’m recovered now, but I’m still not comfortable wearing tampons. Thinx seemed to be the perfect answer for me.” Lane says that she stopped wearing Thinx about a a year ago after noticing “a strange smell coming from the fabric,” adding, “My period had also become incredibly light (I have an IUD) so I didn’t feel the need to wear them anymore. I’ve held onto them, but the smell in the crotch area is putrid and a bit chemical, something that made me not want to buy a new pair.”
Like other Thinx wearers, Lane was nervous about the allegations that Thinx contains toxic chemicals. “When I read the news I was like, ‘Oh my God, am I just poisoning myself?’ I immediately sent the link to all of my friends who I have been pressuring to invest in the product. It looks like we’re all free bleeding from now on.” “That news is super startling as well as frustrating,” says Roman Cohen, a student, aspiring sex educator, and queer nonbinary person based in New York. “It’s so hard to find products that are safe when it comes to things that touch genitals (clothing, toys, etc.). It makes me angry that people would take advantage of their customers’ trust with some of their most intimate and vulnerable moments. Genitalia is no joke: It’s such a sensitive part of the body, and, during a period, no one has the capacity to be worried about their genitals being poisoned!”
“I first heard about Thinx when they started getting press around their groundbreaking billboard ads,” Tara Costello, author of Red Moon Gang: An Inclusive Guide to Periods, shares. “It was really cool to see a brand normalizing mainstream discussion of menstruation in such a huge space, and it was the first time I had come across period underwear too. Everything about it had me excited! [Their] unabashed use of the word ‘period’ and the fact they catered to trans men that made me want to support them.” Costello told me they are also nervous about the report. “It’s a scary finding, and I’m very interested to see the brand’s response. I was unfortunately not surprised, as [this is] a part of a long list of things Thinx [has] been rightly called out for. If there’s any silver lining, I’m hoping it will inspire a conversation [about] the harmful ingredients and materials that go into a lot of menstrual products, both disposable and reusable.”
So: Choy and Sierra tell us that Thinx is not body safe; Thinx disagrees. What do we do now? And, to ask a broader question: What does this moment tell us about our own willingness to buy into so-called feminist branding and our urge to trust female-founded brands that supposedly embrace a progressive mission and aesthetic? In the case of Thinx, the marketing of the “female founder” and the use of feminist- and wellness-based language caused some consumers to adopt a rose-colored-glasses approach to the product. Language like “patriarchy proof” and “by women, for people with periods,” as well as promises of a “giveback program” that “smashes shame around bodies and reproductive health,” created a feeling of trust, authenticity, and, most of all, community.
Thinx is intended to make us feel like we’re not just buying a product, but supporting a brand, and advocating for a larger cause. It feels political. As Aly says, “I did like that they were made by women. I’ll admit I’m a sucker for supporting women-made things.” Many forward-thinking consumers try to support businesses that seem like they’re at least trying to be good. “I honestly didn’t know about their made-by-women marketing, and if I had I think it would have made me more likely to buy them; I’m all about supporting minority-owned businesses and I trust women to make products suitable for people with vulvas,” explains Cohen.
“When I have the choice to buy something from small, women-owned, or minority-owned business, I will make that choice (versus buying from large corporation or white-owned or male-owned),” Aly says. “I don’t even mind paying more for the products in those circumstances.” Figuring out what businesses are actually “good” can be difficult for many shoppers, including Aly. “It can feel futile sometimes to feel like there’s even any morsel of ethics in capitalism, but I’m still rather give money to small business and/or minoritized folks.” The now-ousted Agrawal said in 2016, “Call me a feminist, call me an entrepreneur, call me whatever you want, but I believe in elevating humanity using conscious consumerism as the vehicle to do that.”
The past several years has seen the market become saturated with brands using the language of feminism to prove their own goodness. The PR emails I’ve received almost every single day in the four years I’ve worked in digital media don’t highlight much about the product on offer; instead, they prioritize the messaging they most want consumers to remember: It’s for women, by women. As with the larger sanitization of “self-care,” a phrase made valuable and actionable in activist spaces, the language of “made by women” or “founded by women” has been overused to the point that it has little meaning at all. Once you get into the specifics, the phrase breaks down almost entirely. Who is a woman, the founder, or the face of the company? Who is actually making the products? Are they women, too? Are they being paid fairly? Who has what title? What is the workplace environment like, and does it reflect the supposed goodness of your brand?
A piece of the concern regarding the language of “made by women” or “female founded” is that something being founded by a woman does not make that woman a feminist, or make the product itself feminist. Beyond the fact that a thing cannot be feminist (feminism is a lens and a goal, not a shoe), plenty of women have been the faces of businesses, products, and ideas that actively undermine feminist values and serve intrinsically sexist and disempowering agendas since the beginning of time. Women can found a company, and then abuse their workers; women can create a product, and harm their consumers. In the case of Thinx, women can do it all.