How Social Media is helping Female Consumers hold Corporations Accountable.
What do Always sanitary products, X-pression braids, Thinx period-proof underwear, and DevaCurl have in common? While the uses of these products are as different from each other as day is from night, they have all come under fire for having toxic chemicals or causing harmful side effects on women’s bodies all around the world.
Since January 2019, consumers from countries like Kenya, South Africa, and Pakistan have been asking questions about the quality of Proctor and Gamble’s (P&G) Always sanitary pads under the hashtag #MyAlwaysExperience on different social media platforms. Many menstruating people around the world have complained of getting rashes, burns, and vaginal infections as a result of using Always sanitary pads. Thinx period-proof menstrual underwear, on the other hand, was discovered to contain high levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which are “chemicals associated with cancer, decreased immune response to vaccines, decreased fertility, and more”(PFASCentral.org. 2019). Exposure to PFAS at even the lowest concentrations has been shown to harm human health(PFASCentral.org. 2019). This shocking discovery was made when Ms. Jessian Choy, a blogger for a Sierra Club sustainability living column, sent period-proof underwear from different manufacturers to Notre Dame University researchers to test whether they were as eco-friendly as the manufacturers claimed(Choy,2020). X-pression hair extensions used braids, on the other hand, have, over the years, been cited as the cause of itchy and tender scalps among the myriads of black women who are the majority patrons of the brand. Lastly, DevaCurl, a hair product marketed to curly-haired women of color in the United States of America (USA) is said to have caused hair damage and loss, and other injuries to their hair and scalps(Diaz,2020).
How are brands responding?
Some of the companies in question have denied that their products are causing harm among consumers, while others have reformulated them because of public pressure. For instance, at first, P&G denied that their sanitary products delivered to Global South countries were of less quality than ones provided to Global North countries. This theory was debunked when Twitter users shared pictures of Always pads from countries like Kenya, South Africa, and Pakistan and compared them to images of pads from the US and Belgium. Additionally, journalist April Zhu made a viral Twitter thread about P&G using polyethylene (PE) film in their pads as opposed to alternatives called non-wovens(Zhu,2019). She then described that PE film was chosen for pads manufactured for Global South markets because they were cheaper than non-wovens(Zhu,2019). The PE film is what is said to be the cause of itching, burning, and rashes that people who menstruate are complaining about. After mounting public pressure globally, the company announced the launch of new pads for the affected markets and promised to have reformulated them. Thinx, on the other hand, denied the allegations by Jessian Choy with Thinx CEO Maria Molland, insisting that the tests the company did on their products did not show any presence of PFAS chemicals in their products(Segran,2020). Deva Curl, too, has insisted that their products did not cause any damage and that they had found no safety issues with their formula, contrary to allegations by thousands of women in the US (Diaz, 2020). The X-pression brand, however, has not made any statement on concerns aired by users of their products.
The relationship between women and pain
The denial of women’s pain by corporations is hardly a new phenomenon. Historically, women’s pain is not merely met with doubt but suspicion(Cote,2018). Women’s pain is often dismissed as psychological and, further trivialized as an inconvenience that they choose to complain about (Lozie,2017). Studies on chronic pain have shown that while women make up 70% of patients dealing with chronic pain, 86% of studies on pain are done on male mice and humans. This points to the fact that there is a dearth of information on women’s bodies and pain. Women are encultured to be uncomfortable and even ignore their discomfort (Cote, 2018; Loofbourow, 2018). There is also a notion that since women face a lot of pain that comes with biological functions such as menstruation and childbirth, it should be normal to them. Complaining about this pain is often seen as weak. This bias is not only in the medical community but in other spaces, too, like the beauty industry where tropes such as one that states that beauty must come with pain are perpetuated.
Hence when corporations deny women’s allegations, they are only just continuing the culture of diminishing and ignoring women’s pain. When it comes to men, however, the case is different. Studies show that men’s pain is taken more seriously, and they are more likely to be prescribed pain medication for chronic pain than women (Kiesel,2017). One case that could paint this picture is how a male injective contraceptive was pulled out of trials because men in the trial reported side effects such as acne, mood swings, and depression (NPR,2016). It is ironic that women’s contraceptives, which cause the same side effects and even worse ones like blood clots, have not been pulled out of the market even after decades of complaints from women. When it comes to pain, women are screaming into the void, and nobody is listening, not even corporations that make profit off their backs.
When it comes to pain, women are screaming into the void, and nobody is listening, not even corporations that make profit off their backs.
New media as a way of validating women’s experiences and eliminating gaslighting
While corporations like P&G, Thinx, and DevaCurl may try and gaslight consumers off their own experiences, they are finding ways to support and affirm each other’s allegations. And social media platforms are at the core of it. Before the advent of new media, traditional media was complicit in furthering the silencing narratives about female bodies. Topics such as menstruation were a taboo in public spaces, and traditional media kept it that way by steering off those topics. However, new media has given people a platform to talk about issues that were once deemed shameful without censorship(Nyabola,2018). It is for this reason that thousands of people who menstruate were able to share their narratives on experiences with Always pads off of what started with one tweet ranting about the sanitary pads. Consumers who shared their stories recalled horror stories about Always pads that have been whispered amongst peers for years and years.
Additionally, when P&G denied that their pads for Global South were not different, the networked nature of social media enabled people to collect evidence suggesting otherwise, from countries far and wide. Similarly, on Youtube, beauty influencers like Ayesha Malik denounced their partnerships with Deva Curl and talked extensively about their horror stories about using the products. This caused a ripple effect where people who used Deva Curl products, including Nigerian-Tamil author Akwaeke Emezi, also shared their negative experiences with Deva Curl on social media. It is also on YouTube that black women have been sharing tips and tutorials on how to prevent the itchiness brought about by braiding hair with X-pression braids. Soaking the X-pression hair extensions in a solution of water and apple cider vinegar neutralizes the harsh alkaline chemicals that manufacturers use to preserve the hair extensions; these chemicals are the culprits that cause the itching (Adesina,2019). Blogs like the Sierra Club are also platforms where women connect and share stories in the comment sections of posts. New media platforms are also crucial for archival purposes. Time may pass, but evidence will remain online on how specific brands ignored women’s pain and discomfort. In an age where brand reputation and perception matters, women have found the one way brands will acknowledge the pain inflicted on them by their products. And they are not stopping any time soon.
- Adesina, P., 2019. Braids Are Causing Unbearable Itching For Black Women & The Reason Behind It Is Highly Suspicious. [online] Refinery29.com. Available at: <https://www.refinery29.com/en-gb/itchy-braids-hair> [Accessed 8 May 2020].
- Choy, J., 2020. My Menstrual Underwear Has Toxic Chemicals In It. [online] Sierra Club. Available at: <https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/ask-ms-green/my-menstrual-underwear-has-toxic-chemicals-it> [Accessed 21 April 2020].
- Cote, R., 2018. The Reality Of Women’S Pain. [online] The New Republic. Available at: <https://newrepublic.com/article/147303/reality-womens-pain> [Accessed 8 May 2020].
- Diaz, T., 2020. Devacurl Creates “Curl Care Council” Following Hair-Loss Allegations. [online] Refinery29.com. Available at: <https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/2020/02/9363703/devacurl-hair-loss-damage-controversy> [Accessed 7 May 2020].
- Kiesel, L., 2017. Women And Pain: Disparities In Experience And Treatment – Harvard Health Blog. [online] Harvard Health Blog. Available at: <https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/women-and-pain-disparities-in-experience-and-treatment-2017100912562> [Accessed 7 May 2020].
- NPR. 2016. NPR Choice Page. [online] Available at: <https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/11/03/500549503/male-birth-control-study-killed-after-men-complain-about-side-effects> [Accessed 8 May 2020].
- Lozie, C., 2017. The Erasure Of Female Pain. [online] The Republic. Available at: <https://republic.com.ng/vol1-no1/the-erasure-of-female-pain/> [Accessed 7 May 2020].
- PFASCentral.org. 2019. EWG Investigates – The Science On PFAS: Rebuttal To 3M’S Claims – PFAS Central. [online] Available at: <https://pfascentral.org/news/ewg-invenstigates-the-science-on-pfas-rebuttal-to-3ms-claims> [Accessed 21 April 2020].
- Segran, E., 2020. Report: Thinx Menstrual Underwear Has Toxic Chemicals In The Crotch. [online] Fast Company. Available at: <https://www.fastcompany.com/90450618/report-thinx-menstrual-underwear-has-toxic-chemicals-in-the-crotch> [Accessed 7 May 2020].