Last year, I wrote about the packaging destigmatizing periods with minimalist design that rejects patronizing flowers, ribbons, and bows featured on most feminine hygiene products. Thinx, the blood-absorbent underwear company that claims it’s “disrupting” periods, has just released a new line of organic tampons, the accompanying branding veering into more suggestive territory: instead of sullen minimalism, we’re seeing design that unabashedly depicts the product’s function and doesn’t shy away from images of blood or vaginas.
An illustrated, blood-red vagina sits in the center of the Thinx tampon packet, a small white string dangling beneath it; lift up the thin plastic sheath that covers the box and the image of a tampon is neatly revealed underneath. It’s a smart piece of packaging: the motion of opening and closing the box mimics pulling out and putting in a tampon. In a way, it’s both a functional instruction manual and a progressive, body-positive statement.
Founded in 2014, Thinx has become known for its tongue-in-cheek, suggestive, and occasionally explicit branding. In 2015, the New York subway authority caused outrage by refusing to put up ads for the company because they had the word “period” in them and featured images of runny eggs that looked like menstrual blood. The branding continues to invoke a progressive spirit when it comes to design; on the side of its new tampon boxes it reads “real menstruating human being,” in Thinx’s characteristic punchy, millennial-friendly tone—the same slogan proudly written on its hip-hugging undies.
A lot of women have celebrated the new packaging on social media this week (alongside disappointed reactions to another news story circulating around the company, which calls out the “feminist utopia” for its poor employment policies). Of the tampons, one commenter exclaims: “Finally, tampon branding that is brave enough to say and show what it actually does! F*ck yeah.” The branding has worked—Thinx’s regular tampons sold out within 24 hours.
It’s a political moment when women are reclaiming images derived from their anatomy, rejecting the idea of female body parts as objects for the male gaze. This new Thinx branding fits in neatly alongside the woven pussy hats of the Women’s March, and is part of a wider trend that’s extended to the world of interior design too, where we’re seeing a lot of independent producers creating products with the naked female anatomy on display in a desexualized context. The red vagina adorning Thinx’s new tampon packaging suggests that the company situates itself within this sweeping movement.
Thinx is not the only company to use graphic design to destigmatize periods, though it has created the very first packaging to explicitly depict the actual use and purpose of the product. FLEX, a disposable alternative to tampons that lasts up to 12 hours and can be worn during sex, also rejects the notion that packaging should be discreet in order to “help” a woman not feel embarrassed when carrying a sanitary product to the bathroom. “It’s extremely problematic,” says FLEX founder and CEO Lauren Schulte.
The FLEX packaging is designed so that a customer would want to “proudly show off” the product. “We designed the dimensions of the box so that it could fit on the back of any toilet, on any countertop, and in most medicine cabinets. Having a box of FLEX sitting on your counter shows the world that you aren’t ashamed of your body,” says Schulte. “For the branding we used gold because it’s aspirational. It’s the color of winners, of unabashed boldness. Gold oozes strength, and it’s gender neutral. The gold foil pattern drips like honey over the sides of the box, insinuating a period can be beautiful and a point of pride.”
While the branding’s emphasis on the notion of a period as the “gift” of fertility is problematic and alienating to women who are infertile or who choose not to have children, pushing the idea of spilled blood as something normal—even beautiful—is productive.
It is worth remembering that the context of start-ups and companies like FLEX and Thinx allows design to be explicit and proud: 70% of women in the West use tampons, and there is a large consumer base of women sick of patronizing floral motifs and feminine clichés. In China, only 2% of women use the product, and culturally a tampon is believed to compromise virginity—it’s a stigmatized taboo.
In this context, designers have recently used a different tack to encourage tampons to enter the mainstream: agency Pearlfisher’s identity and packaging for a new Chinese tampon company, Femmé, uses elegant minimalism and soft colors to do so. “Simultaneously stylish and discreet,” the branding of Femmé “elevates the product from basic pharmaceutical product to high-end lifestyle brand,” say Pearfisher. “The result is a brand that women are confident to carry with them in their handbags.”
The simplicity disguises the product’s intent in a way that the designers behind FLEX and Thinx reject; the sophisticated swirls and evasive imagery contribute to perpetuating the problematic notion of feminine discretion. Yet if there is such a stigma around tampons in China, perhaps design has to first be evasive before it can be explicit—to ease consumers into purchasing the item at all. A similar approach can be seen in the packaging of US-based organic tampon delivery service, LOLA. What Femmé could learn from LOLA packaging though, is that to ease a consumer into purchasing tampons, design doesn’t have to be stereotypically feminine. The swirling illustration and name “Femmé” could be alienating to women who don’t identify as female, and perpetuates the link of a certain aesthetic to womanhood. LOLA on the other hand demonstrates how the design of tampons can be gender-neutral, discreet, and elegant.
Whether it’s through blatant use of red, the depiction of oozing blood, and the straightforward image of a vagina, or through more minimal and luxurious motifs, design’s battle with the stigma around periods continues. Thinx’s branding productively paves the way towards a more body-positive and normalized relationship with periods by simply showing tampons for exactly what they are, not as something other.