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Period Feminism

Thinx's professed feminist ideals became a double-edged sword

Before its rumors of profitability and penchant for controversy captivated the startup world, Thinx, the conspicuously feminist manufacturer of period-proof underwear, wanted to make a splash, so it did something true to its NYC roots: it decided to buy subway ads. The bombastic banners lining the train cars reach a captive audience of untold millions, and the company had a few things to get off its chest. It seemed like as good a place to start as any.

But Outfront Media, the agency coordinating most of the ads for the MTA, New York’s transit authority, had other ideas. Even before Thinx had formally submitted the ad copy, Outfront representatives were furiously wringing their hands. They were, evidently, unmoved by some of Thinx’s impossibly hip taglines—“Period-proof underwear that’s actually waaay less gross and waaay more hygienic than that pole you’re holding rn”—and cautioned Thinx against submitting ads that featured a woman suggestively dressed (in one ad the model wore a sweater and underwear, but no pants) or employed sliced grapefruit as imagery. This was pretty clearly a load of faux-puritan sexist bullshit; the same NYC subway system, after all, was rife with ads literally displaying a bikini-clad woman holding grapefruits over her presumably soon-to-be-enlarged breasts. The whole sequence was flawlessly scripted to raise the ire of Miki Agrawal, the company’s founder.

The ad board implored Thinx “not to make this a women’s rights thing,” but Agrawal knew better and immediately took the fight public. She posted a series of unseemly emails from the subway representatives on Facebook, expertly stoked the embers of feminist fury in the Twitterverse and within days persuaded the MTA to back down. And, just like that, Thinx’s boldly female-positive messages became a bright spot in the daily commute of millions of New Yorkers.

Fawning magazine profiles declaring Agrawal the perfect avatar of the contemporary badass female CEO poured in like money.

The rest is history. Buoyed by the momentum from their decisive victory in the subway affair, sales grew briskly and Thinx and Agrawal were anointed the new darlings of the startup world. Revenues jumped by a factor of twenty-three in 2015, and reached into the tens of millions in 2016. Meanwhile,  fawning magazine profiles declaring Agrawal the perfect avatar of the contemporary badass female CEO poured in like money. The stories pretty much wrote themselves.

Agrawal was a millennial feminist icon straight out of central casting, with a character arc bordering on cliché: Ivy League college, investment banking, 9/11-induced crisis of conscience, and much heedless pursuit of youthful passion projects before finally resolving to devote her life to neutering the patriarchy—and in just a few years had grown Thinx from nothing into a company with the wherewithal to bend the New York subway authority to its will. With her entrepreneurial up-by-her-bootstraps backstory and endless supply of provocative quips, Agrawal made for the perfect entree into Thinx’s world of for us, by us feminism. As usual, she put it best: “the notion of feminism as part of Thinx was an organic realization—a perfect fit—because it’s what we exist to do.”

Thinx’s feminist spin on business development is no doubt progressive and avant-garde, but it only gets to keep being those things for as long as it survives capitalism’s Darwinian gauntlet of trials and tribulations. For now, the company remains suspended in a limbo instantly recognizable to any startup with world-conquering ambitions—its aspirations are boundless, but its viability remains an open question.

There’s a case to be made that Thinx has so far pulled through simply because it’s built a better mousetrap, though it’s tough to say whether that’s actually true. The company has clearly succeeded in monopolizing the digital ink spilled in what Agrawal calls the “period space,” but dominating headlines isn’t the same thing as manufacturing a superior device. Blogosphere pwnage aside, the idea that Thinx’s underwear outperforms its competition—Lunapads, Dear Kate, and Knixwear, among others—is mostly extrapolation from generally positive high-profile media reviews and reports suggesting that sales are on the rise. Still, patent archives are brimming with designs for period management devices, but until now nobody had ever made the leap from concept to first-mover advantage. Thinx has not only bridged that gap, but also won near synonymity with garments that can replace, rather than just augment, traditional menstrual products. The pitch is irresistible: for women who, in Agrawal’s words, “just want to wear underwear, and bleed in [their] underwear,” accept no substitutes.

But fixating on Thinx’s physical product neglects its more significant advantage. The company came of age precisely at the moment that the zeitgeist—at least as interpreted by affluent, coastal, millennial women—finally got around to discarding the laughable notion that menstruation should be ignored or, worse yet, stigmatized. This new milieu isn’t just responsible for birthing Thinx; the rise of “period feminism” has also heralded the first advances in feminine hygiene technology in decades, kick-started the still-too-gradual repeal of luxury taxes on tampons, and even bestowed a well-deserved second life on Gloria Steinem’s classic 1978 Ms. magazine piece that imagined a world where men got periods and would be able to conveniently buy products like Muhammad Ali Rope-a-dope Pads, because of course.

They’ve caught flak for practicing a brand of feminism that benefits wealthy women at the expense of the underprivileged.

None of this was lost on Thinx. Here’s a very-much-incomplete list of the public-facing initiatives that the company has undertaken in support of feminist causes: a delightfully named blog and weekly newsletter (“periodical”); a Twitter feed regularly featuring hashtags like #seasonsbleedings and #freeperiods; a documentary where Agrawal talks to everyone from TV stars to clergy about their periods; and a pledge to match every sale of Thinx with a donation to Afripads, a company that sells disposable menstrual pads to Ugandan girls and women. It’s striking how Agrawal characterizes Thinx’s mission as inseparable from her own feminism. “I only started relating to being a feminist, literally, right when I started my company,” she admitted. “But I learned so much in the past few years about the plight of women.” The bond between Thinx’s feminist ideals and monetary success is only hardened by the company’s laser-like focus on galvanizing educated, affluent millennials with pro-female messaging. Agrawal makes no bones about it—Miki’s twin sister and Thinx co-founder, Radha, has said, without qualification, that feminism is Thinx’s raison d’être. It shows. Thinx’s unapologetic embrace of feminist ideals is the clearest reason that the world has beaten a path to its door.

Thinx’s ideology isn’t removed from criticism—they’ve caught flak, for instance, for practicing a brand of feminism that benefits wealthy women at the expense of the underprivileged —but Agrawal was still willing to bet big that it could form the basis of a thriving and sustainable business. To prove her right, Thinx will need to ace the same critical test that every startup faces: somehow use its resources to outperform the market. The trouble is that if your keystone asset is a commitment to ideals, then those ideals are a double-edged sword.

Thinx’s feminism served it beautifully right up until the moment early last year when a number of media outlets ran exposés detailing rampant behind-the-scenes dysfunction and a set of corporate policies that, to put it mildly, read as antithetical to the company’s women-first image. After its high-profile ad campaign put it on the map, Thinx was so in vogue that Agrawal found herself swamped with messages from young women intent on working for such a progressive organization—precisely the sort of recruiting edge that every business dreams of. Thinx, method acting the role of hungry startup, apparently opted to use this leverage to hold down employee salaries; ex-Thinxers have gone so far as to claim that the corporate culture made it seem “selfish to take a salary representative of your worth.” The company also stood accused of systematically hindering the progression of women up the corporate ladder, limiting fully-paid maternity leave to a two weeks for the birthing parent and offering employees health coverage so meager that some were unable to even afford birth control. Soon after these allegations were publicized, as many as ten of Thinx’s thirty-five-person staff reportedly resigned in protest. In the blink of an eye, the same publications that a few months earlier had been splashing glossy paeans to Thinx across their covers were now racing to air its dirty laundry.

The received wisdom was that the lion’s share of the blame belonged to Agrawal. Anonymous ex-employees charged her with fostering a hostile work environment, personally manipulating Glassdoor reviews, and very publicly taking credit for the firm’s success while deflecting responsibility for its failures. One aggrieved ex-Thinxer labeled her a “time bomb and a liability.” Even more seriously, Thinx’s former head of PR filed a complaint charging Agrawal with a pattern of sexual harassment that included commenting on physiques of particular women, changing outfits in full view of other staff and touching an employee’s breasts. Even if the allegations stopped short of painting Agrawal as a Weinstein-level predator, there’s no question that this was, at very least, conduct unbecoming a feminist.

It’d be hard not to count the feverish coverage surrounding Agrawal’s undoing as yet another resounding victory for the internet-schadenfreude complex. The headlines poured in fast and furious casting the suddenly erstwhile media darling in a series of unflattering new roles: there was Agrawal as meretricious creator of a failed feminist utopia, Agrawal as a rube unable to distinguish between a Burning Man orgy and her Brooklyn office, and, of course, Agrawal as star of a snark-drenched listicle. The tone of the new articles read more like the unmasking of an impostor than the dispassionate chronicling of an embattled executive. Negative press should have been expected—the accusations were genuinely serious, and made for dishy copy—but it’s curious that all this shade was being thrown at the CEO of a privately-held non-unicorn with thirty-something employees. This wasn’t exactly Travis Kalanick clinging to his job at Uber while its market cap fell off a cliff—even if the comparison is irresistible since, at least up until about five minutes ago, the Kalanicks of the world were granted a perpetual pass on this sort of behavior. That Agrawal wasn’t speaks, of course, to endemic sexist double standards, but also to how harshly corporate figures are judged when they deviate from our expectations.

The sexual harassment complaint was ultimately settled privately, but the media firestorm caused Agrawal to relinquish her CEO title. She stepped down to “Chief Vision Officer” a few days before the news broke, then left the company completely, tarnishing the luster of her carefully manicured public image. Still she defiantly insists that she’ll forever remain the company’s “She-EO.” She’s now off peddling a book—“a manifesto for the modern woman”—pushing a new venture that promises to bring bidets to the bathrooms of long-suffering Americans and spreading the gospel of “turning world challenges into compelling opportunities” at speaking gigs across the country. Agrawal’s resignation actually came a few days before the most grievous accusations were publicized, but it’s not a huge stretch to suppose that the writing may have already been on the wall. Regardless, it’d be myopic to assume that there weren’t also systemic issues at play, especially since the whole mess unfurled within the confines of Thinx’s supposedly-feminist corporate structure.

Thinx is now faced with the unenviable task of pricing out the difference between claiming to be feminist, and acting the part.

Agrawal’s successor—Maria Molland Selby, an e-commerce veteran—understandably kicked off her tenure by distancing herself from the old regime. “As you can imagine, when the [scandal] hit, I thought, ‘I don’t want to touch this with a 10-foot pole,’” she admitted. Since her appointment, the company has tried to brand itself as professional, sober and adult—or, at very least, post-pubescent. It installed a formal HR department, announced plans to beef up employee salaries and health benefits, and doubled down on its commitment to ostentatious charitable giving. To hear Selby tell it, Thinx’s scandalous past is now squarely in the rearview. “Anybody who comes to me or anybody on the management team, they know 100 percent of all of those issues are immediately addressed, and that there is zero tolerance,” she declared recently. Still, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether this flurry of initiatives signals a renewed commitment to principled feminism, or garden-variety risk aversion. Either way, the vultures are circling; competing brand Knixwear, for instance, gleefully reported that its sales shot up tripled in the wake of the scandal, as customers presumably cast about for a company that actually walked the walk.

Thinx is now faced with the unenviable task of pricing out the difference between claiming to be feminist, and acting the part. The obvious path to heading off employee dissatisfaction—and mollifying those questioning its commitment to feminist ideals—is pay more, provide better benefits and heed the golden rule. Sadly, only one of those suggestions comes cheap. Every dollar earmarked for the employee health plan or to subsidize longer maternity leave is a dollar that doesn’t make it to the bottom line. It’s essentially a zero-sum game, and there really aren’t too many places that the money can come from. Thinx can certainly try raising prices to offset increased cost of labor, though they’re probably already setting prices to maximize profits and surely have no interest in validating the notion that its feminism only embraces the affluent. It’s hard to see the upside. If it hasn’t already, Thinx will eventually discover that its only plausible move is to start cannibalizing its own leverage.

Its loud and proud feminism granted the company two vital advantages—ideological credibility with its feminist customer base and a leg up attracting talent at below market rates—that are all of a sudden in dangerous tension. Resolving to spend more on employees will help reassure skittish customers of the company’s feminist bona fides, but will inevitably dull its competitive edge. Yet if Thinx fails to overhaul its employment practices, it risks remaining mired in a social responsibility crisis, seeing its customer appeal evaporate and playing right into the hands of every thirsty startup gunning for its crown.