When Thinx “period panties” burst onto the scene in 2015, the start-up was heralded as one of the most pro-woman brands in the market. But the company’s recent controversy, which began with an exposé from Racked about an allegedly hostile work environment and then snow-balled into a possible sexual harassment suit against its former CEO, has proven once again that you can’t sell feminism.
Thinx’s underwear is designed to free women from tampon tyranny with a special absorbent fabric that supposedly makes it safe for women to “bleed free” without any additional sanitary products. The fact that someone out there is working to make menstruation more comfortable earned the company major feminist points out of the gate.
Then came Thinx’s edgy advertising campaigns: one ad featured a trans man in perhaps the most public acknowledgment of men who menstruate to date. The company was applauded for their inclusivity and social awareness. Another cheerfully, refreshingly pro-vagina add featured a segmented pink grapefruit with unmistakable but subtle connotations. The ad was almost banned by the New York City subway for the apparently scandalous use of the word “period” in the tagline, “Underwear for women who have periods.“
Of course, some were initially skeptical about the company’s corporate feminism, and founder and former-CEO Miki Agrawal attempted to allay that with a Medium post. “The notion of feminism as a part of [Thinx] was an organic realization—a perfect fit—because it’s what we exist to do,” she wrote. “Each and every word and image used in our communications and our campaigns is thought up and created by our team of young badass feminists (all of whom also have their own interpretations of the term). Integrating feminism into our marketing is not a ploy, and it is not exploitative; it’s reclamation of how brands treat and speak to women, and it’s an ideological pushback against generations of condescension and insulting marketing towards women. Plus, there’s nothing more refreshing than a nice, pink grapefruit.”
But if the Thinx brand really represents an “organic realization” and a “reclamation,” then that empowerment should have been reflected in the workplace, right? Apparently not. In a scathing article called “Thinx Promised a Feminist Utopia to Everyone But Its Employees,” Racked blew off the lid of a reportedly hostile environment Thinx employees face, from salary negotiations to inadequate maternity leave. Racked quoted one employee as saying that working for Agrawal was like being in an abusive relationship. Another described it as a “middle school environment” ruled by Agrawal’s unpredictable moods. The article has been widely shared as Thinx fans bemoaned the apparent bait-and-switch that is painting feminism on the exterior of a toxic company.
The controversy has only mounted since, with one former employee coming forward to lodge sexual harassment complaints against Agrawal, alleging that the former boss fondled her breasts, video-conferenced into meetings while on the toilet and shared explicit details about her sex life with employees.
As excited as many were about the product and its provocative ads, it now appears that Thinx is yet another example of why consumers need to be wary of companies that so loudly use the tropes of progressiveness and inclusivity as a marketing strategy. Such lip service is usually empty when it’s being used to make money. Urban Outfitters sells hoodies with "feminist” printed on the front and The Little Book of Feminism, yet the company has funneled money to anti-gay politicians like Rick Santorum and even stocked, for a short time, a greeting card that was transphobic. In 2015, American Apparel proudly advertised that “women have always been in charge” at the company yet for years, the clothier hired Terry Richardson, who many models have alleged sexual assault against, to shoot its advertisements. Of course, Ivanka Trump self-identifies as a feminist as she promotes her entrepreneurial endeavors, including clothing and jewelry lines, but she’s been complicit in her father’s bad behavior.
More often than not, feminist companies don’t advertise themselves as such. Instead, they’re the quiet ones that simply take care of their female employees, with swift action against workplace sexual harassment, no complaints about employee health coverage paying for birth control and generous parental leave policies. Most of the companies on Forbe’s “100 Best Workplaces for Women” list aren’t huge, recognizable brands. So just like that highway diner advertising “the best steak in town,” remember: You shouldn’t always buy what someone’s selling.