Why do we treat period products as less essential than toilet paper?
Menstruation is a natural part of women’s life, but products, such as tampons and pads, used to manage it are treated as non-essential or a luxury. This is evidenced by the absence of menstrual products in bathrooms and tax policies which tax period products as luxury goods in most states. In the absence of free or paid dispensers for period products, women have developed a wide variety of coping strategies for taking care of menstrual needs and concealing period products from the eyes of men and the general public.
Defining the Opportunity
While we are currently in the midst of a “menstruation renaissance”, most of the design-based interventions have focused on ways lighten women’s individual responsibility or create new products that are less wasteful and more pleasant to use. These are welcome additions to the period product landscape, but none of are aimed at women experiencing those “unexpected moments” or women who cannot afford to buy higher-end, reusable products, regardless of tax levels. In these cases, the burden of responsibility must shift from the individual to the institutional. The next battleground in menstruation will be on access to free or low-cost period products in public spaces.
However, there has been a lack of conversation about the institutional responsibility to make period management accessible. With the few exceptions, schools, work places, and businesses do not see it as their responsibility to provide women with enough access to period products, despite how critical they are for women to feel comfortable and functional. Few strategies have been explored for how to make women confident they will be able to manage their period when they are outside the home. Tampon/pad dispensers have been the traditional solution, but they are rare and the general perception of them is that they are “coin-operated, cardboard/low-quality, broken, empty, and old fashioned.” This perception sheds more negative emotions on the idea that women can depend on finding a solution for their period when they need one.
I conducted some experiments to learn more about how women navigate menstrual products under two conditions: in public or private spaces and with or without political messaging about period product access.
Phase I: Object Intervention
I created a tampon dispenser and tracked how many tampons were taken under the different circumstances (no message/bathroom, message/bathroom, no message/public, and message/public.)
Phase II: Survey
When the results of phase I turned out to less insightful than anticipated, I created a survey to examine broader attitudes and motivations that may inform successful interventions regarding period product access. Click here for full survey results.
- Political messaging on the tampon dispenser had a strong influence on the number of tampons taken in a bathroom, but was not strong enough to overcome the stigma of accessing tampons in a public space.
- Providing free period products reduces stigma surrounding menstruation and signals that the institution cares if menstruation does not affect women’s ability to participate.
- The general perception of tampon dispensers is, “On the rare chance that you see once, they are outdated, empty, and dispensing low-quality products you do not trust.” Lack of choice and quality were big factors to the perception of current tampon dispensers as useless.
- 96% of respondents either “Strongly Agreed” or “Somewhat Agreed” that period products should be as accessible as toilet paper.
- Respondents agreed more strongly that all bathrooms should have free period products than paid period products.
- When asked, 64% of respondents filled out a story about menstruation. Average word count of the stories was 71 words. Major themes of the stories were about inconvenient places to unexpectedly get your period, staining another person’s items, being publicly seen with period stains, or having their period interrupt an important life event.