Last month, a new line of period underwear for trans men reminded us that women aren't the only people who menstruate. Called the "boyshort," Thinx released the line, which is designed to be gender-neutral, in response to negative feedback about the brand's female-centric tagline: "Underwear for women with periods."
In the campaign, model Sawyer DeVuyst discussed the reality of living with a menstrual period as a trans man, stating that menstruation is a "safety risk." "You're in a men's room and somebody hears you rustling a paper in the stall because you're changing a tampon — that outs you," he said.
In an interview with Mashable, Thinx CEO Miki Agrawal admitted that the original tagline of the band could be interpreted as marginalizing trans bodies, saying, "We hadn't given a lot of thought to it, which is not super surprising given the lack of trans male visibility even now."
By addressing Thinx's blind spot and marketing directly to trans men, Agrawal not only gave trans men greater options for addressing their specific health needs, but also provided crucial representation for a community too often left out of the conversation about menstruation. The widespread lack of inclusion when it comes to "feminine" hygiene products is reflective of the invisibility and sense of shame many trans men feel on a daily basis.
Mic spoke to Mitch Kellaway, a 27-year-old freelance writer and co-editor of the book Manning Up: Transsexual Men on Finding Brotherhood, Family and Themselves. Kellaway said that before seeing a Thinx billboard while walking out of a subway station in New York City, he'd never seen a gender-inclusive advertisement before. The ad bills the product as "underwear for women with periods," but next to the word "women," a little arrow pointed out that Thinx is also made for "any menstruating human." Kellaway did a double take.
"As a trans man, I am so used to not being considered in any conversation when it comes to menstruation, anything having to do with vaginal, cervical or uterine health," he said. "It's a symptom of a larger thing where I've become very used to people being unaware of the possibility of the fullness of my existence."
Kellaway said this is an extraordinarily common feeling among trans men. "We feel quite invisible," Kellaway told Mic.
Like many trans men, Kellaway stopped menstruating after taking testosterone, and the strong effects of hormone therapy also allow him to be perceived as male-bodied. But he stressed these experiences are "not universal."
"It's a double-edged sword because it provides this real protection ... in a society where being transgender is so highly stigmatized and considered a strike against you," he said. "But I think it has this deeper psychological effect where you know you're not fathomable."
Kellaway described his period as a "vague inconvenience" in his life — one that he's ultimately come to terms with. Yet there continues to be a widespread silence around trans men's bodies and experiences that reflects the stigma around periods themselves.
Vermont-based writer Wiley Reading, 27, told Mic that while every person, trans men included, has a different relationship with their cycle, his has been particularly complicated.
At the age of 23, Reading was diagnosed with premenstrual dysphoric disorder. Essentially a more extreme form of premenstrual syndrome, PMDD is relatively rare among those who menstruate, affecting between 5% to 10% of the population. But for those diagnosed, the symptoms can be very severe: The condition can lead to intense feelings of depression, hopelessness and anxiety. Reading described his experiences with PMDD as four days of constant turmoil, where "every little bad thing that happens to you is literally the end of the world."
Reading has been able to treat the symptoms of PMDD by taking testosterone, but years of painful memories have made body acceptance a difficult process. He particularly described the fear of finding blood on his clothes, a concern that plagued him throughout his childhood.
"A lot of people — girls, especially — get teased if their classmates catch them bleeding through their pants," Reading said. "The worst thing in the world when you're a kid is to be singled out for something."
On top of peer ridicule, Reading said he believes many young people internalize negative messages about menstruation; both cisgender women and trans men are taught that periods are dirty and disgusting, meant to be kept a secret and never openly discussed. "It's gross because everyone else thinks it's gross, and I'm gross because I'm doing it," as Reading put it.
That stigma can be particularly damaging for many trans men. Kellaway explained that menstruating as a transmasculine person brushes up against socially constructed ideas of gender. From an early age, we're taught to associate getting your period with femininity. "The day you begin menstruating, you're no longer a girl," he said. "You're told you're a woman now."
For trans men, the fact that many will continue to have their periods throughout their entire lives, especially when they aren't taking testosterone, is an upsetting reminder of that linkage. "I know that this is stupid, and I know that men can get their periods too," Reading said. "I have that intellectual thought in my head, but it still gets to you." Reading told Mic that while many parts of his body don't make him feel like "less of a man," those associated with menstruation unfortunately still do.
Trans activist and writer Basil Soper, 29, believes that there are many ways we can combat that shame — and that starts with men's underwear companies following Thinx's lead. "Some of my sadness around Thinx is that it's still being equated with femaleness," Soper told Mic. "It's not being made in, like, a male space."
Soper called on brands like Hanes, Calvin Klein or Tommy Hilfiger — all of which are popular with cisgender men — to release lines that are inclusive of trans bodies. How can they do so? The answer is surprisingly simple: Listen to trans people.
After receiving backlash for its female-only line, Thinx consulted DeVuyst on how to do better. "I went into their office and did a training session with their staff, offering them advice on everything from fit to how to be a better ally," DeVuyst told New York magazine.
In addition to making more products that make transgender men visible, Soper said it's important to provide them with gender-affirming resources and information about their bodies, as well as create a space for discussion, openness and honesty. Although Soper said he actually has a great relationship with his period, the biggest mistake he made was "swallowing [his] shame." "We are still a community that needs a lot of healing," he said.
To combat the stigma around menstruation — whether that's as a trans man or a woman — Reading agrees that breaking the silence is absolutely crucial. "Talking about things we've coded as shameful is an incredibly important political act," he said. "Having your period is one of them. Nobody's helping anyone by pretending that we don't go through this."