Menstruation Gets a Gen Z Makeover
Menstruation Gets a Gen Z Makeover
Young people want alternatives to disposable tampons and pads — and they’re not embarrassed to talk about it.
By Pooja Makhijani
Published Jan. 20, 2022Updated Jan. 24, 2022
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When Sapna Palep was younger, she was mortified by conversations about menstruation. “It was like, ‘Let’s not talk about this, I need to leave the room,’” said the 43-year-old mother of two. The mere mention of periods evoked “pure embarrassment and fear.”
Ms. Palep’s 9-year-old daughter, Aviana Campello-Palep, in contrast, approaches the topic with zero self-consciousness or hesitation. “When my friends talk about getting their period, they just talk about it,” Aviana said. “It’s just normal in a girl’s life.”
These frank conversations have led Ms. Palep and her daughters, Aviana and Anaya, who is 8, to create Girls With Big Dreams, a line of undergarments for tweens, which includes reusable period underwear that offers an environmentally friendlier alternative to disposable pads and tampons; their brand will launch in early February and be sold online.
“I’m hopefully going to make a difference in somebody’s life so they’re not embarrassed at some point by something that’s so normal,” Aviana said.
The Campello-Palep girls are representative of two emerging trends that have become clear to period advocates, and anyone who casually follows #PeriodTok: Members of Gen Z and beyond are more forthcoming about their periods than generations past, and they are more likely to care whether the products they use are environmentally sustainable. The convergence of the two ideals may signify a cultural shift in how young people are approaching menstruation.
More options for reusable period products like absorbent underwear, menstrual cups, cloth pads and panty liners, and applicator-free tampons are on the market now than ever before — some made just for teens and tweens.
“This whole movement is youth-driven,” said Michela Bedard, executive director of Period Inc., a global nonprofit focused on providing access to period supplies and ending period stigma. “Young menstruators are having a completely different experience in terms of managing their periods with reusables throughout their life.”
Reusable products represent only a fraction of menstruation supplies purchased in the United States — Americans spend $1.8 billion on pads and $1 billion on tampons yearly, which dwarfs sales of all other products combined. But the market share for reusable products is expected to grow through the next decade, according to forecasters, largely fueled by the wider acceptance and availability of menstrual cups in Western countries. Still, the average menstruator can use thousands of tampons in their lifetime. And single-use plastic menstrual products take about 500 years to decompose, a 2021 report from the United Nations Environment Programme found.
Members of Gen Z, who studies find are more likely to get involved in climate change and sustainability efforts than previous generations, are teaching their parents about new ways to handle their monthly cycle openly and sustainably.
“I used to have conversations about how to hide your tampon or pad up in your sleeve or in your shorts or in your pants,” said Dr. Cara Natterson, who is a pediatrician; the author of American Girl’s best-selling “The Care and Keeping of You” series; and founder of Oomla, a gender- and size-inclusive line of bras and puberty products. “I do not have that conversation anymore because the kids go, ‘Why should I hide my tampon and my pad?’ They are 100 percent right.”
Dr. Natterson’s 18-year-old daughter has educated her about new products in the marketplace, some of which she discovers from Instagram influencers or #PeriodTok videos. “Teens are looking for conversations around people’s experiences, not five-star Amazon reviews,” she said. Dr. Natterson recently considered using cloth pads again after a failed experiment with them years ago, at her teenager’s behest. “They didn’t work super well when they were first being invented and iterated,” she said. “My daughter said, ‘You got to try them again.’”
Environmental sustainability and menstruation may be having a moment, but it’s not the first time, said Lara Freidenfelds, a historian of health, reproduction and parenting, and author of “The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America.” Homemade menstrual rags were the norm through the turn of the 20th century, up until Kotex became the first successfully mass-marketed pad in 1921. Modernity equaled disposability, and the brand was aspirational, she said.
The first robust discussions of sustainability in menstrual care started in the 1970s as people experimented with cloth pads and sponges. “There have always been young people who were idealistic and thought about these things but did not find the products available to be practical,” she said. Sustainability has historically been sacrificed for the sake of convenience, she added.
Today, parents of Gen Zers benefit from improvements in menstrual technology: The cloth pads of yore are not the cloth pads of today; and period underwear, for example, is made of highly absorbent fabric without being bulky. New menstruators often turn to a parent for products and advice — now parents can hand over more than a disposable pad or tampon, potentially rerouting some of the more than 15 billion disposable products that end up in landfills every year in America.
“The world we’re going to have when these progressive Gen Zers become parents in 20 years — that’s going to be fascinating,” said Nadya Okamoto, a former executive director of Period Inc. and co-founder of the sustainable menstrual products brand August.
Despite these cultural shifts and advances in technology, there are significant barriers to widespread use of reusable or recyclable products. “When you first get your period, pads are the easiest thing to find and buy,” said Anaya Balaji, who is 13. “If you go into the school bathrooms, they’re stocked with Always,” she added, referring to the disposable brand’s ubiquitous presence in her California high school. As an online community leader for the Inner Cycle, a virtual forum for the August brand, Anaya connects with her peers on social media to provide education and awareness. “You can find the products out there that fit your body and that work good for you and good for the environment,” she said.
Still, some young people can’t afford reusable products, especially in communities where period poverty — or the lack of access to menstrual products — is an issue. “Even though the investment in a $25 pair of underwear or a $60 cup would save you money, a lot of people don’t have that money every month,” said Ms. Bedard, whose organization serves the economically disadvantaged.
Like disposable products, reusable and recyclable products are also subject to a “tampon tax” — a tax that is levied on products that are deemed nonessential — in many states. Activists argue that such taxes are sexist and discriminatory and have fought to repeal them nationwide through legislative action. In 2021, several states, including Louisiana, Maine and Vermont, nixed the tax.
The cultural stigma that plagues menstruation also stubbornly persists, despite the best efforts of young people to normalize periods. Patriarchal taboos around virginity, purity and “dirtiness” in many cultures and religions quash conversation and can impede the use of internal menstrual products, such as tampons or cups.
Corporate messaging still largely emphasizes discreetness and cleanliness, which makes periods seem dirty or bad, said Chella Quint, a menstrual activist, educator and author of “Own Your Period: A Fact-filled Guide to Period Positivity.” “For a long time, the disposable menstrual product industry was hugely responsible for propagating and perpetuating the sort of negative taboos that keep people down and frightened,” she added.
Menstrual health is a public health issue and has no gender, Dr. Natterson said. To combat taboos around the subject, anyone, even those who don’t menstruate, should be able to speak freely about periods too, she said. Dr. Natterson said she’s made sure her 16-year-old son knows to hand his sweatshirt to a classmate who has a blood stain on their pants, and to have a tampon or pad to share.
“Teaching everyone to respect other people’s bodies — everyone needs to be part of that conversation,” she said.