Periods. So natural, yet such a taboo topic. Women have been facing bleeding, pain and menstrual problems since the dawn of time, yet there is little to no research and support when it comes to periods. For me, my period has taken me to hell and back, struggling with getting diagnosed with Endometriosis, trying multiple different hormonal treatments bringing my mental health to the floor and causing everything from weight loss to hormonal acne. Having a period is painful and hard when it really shouldn’t be, which is why when I came across Ohne, I knew they were onto something big.
Founded by Leah and Nikki, two friends that were frustrated by period products and the difficulties in finding good products, Ohne has not only created a community – they are changing the way we’re viewing our menstrual cycle. We had the chance to chat to Leah about navigating running a start-up, amplifying the conversation around periods as well as the harmful materials we’re putting in our bodies when using period products.
Keep reading for our full interview, and visit Ohne’s website here.
How did you start Ohne? What was the idea behind the brand?
Ohne began pretty much from a point of total frustration! I’ll never forget the moment Nikki and I were having a girl’s night at my place and she suddenly runs down the stairs, already in rant-mode, waving a purple flowery pad around indignantly. We spent the whole night shouting over each other (thanks, wine) about everything we hated about the period product industry, and by the end of the night we had pretty much come up with the idea for Ohne. It seemed so obvious to us – where was the brand that didn’t infantilise users with childlike packaging, didn’t perpetuate stereotypes and shame around periods; the brand that could be gender inclusive, body-safe, and felt fun?
Okay, so there was slightly more to it than that – I’d always wanted to start my own brand after running a café business in Devon, and had been a long-time champion (Nikki would say I was utterly obsessive) of organic products – name a product, I can name an organic alternative to it. And Nikki had experience working with NGOs focused on both women’s initiatives and sustainability development. But even though it’s fair to say we should’ve seen an idea like Ohne coming from a mile off, we’d never even imagined we’d go into business together until that night.
How do the Ohne tampons differ from other brands? Why is this important?
Ohne tampons are 100% certified organic cotton – and literally nothing else. The ingredients list in a mainstream tampon makes for a pretty disturbing read, they’re basically a chemical soup with contaminants linked to hormonal disruption, cancer, birth defects, and TSS. The reason so few people know this? In the UK there are stricter labelling requirements on hamster food that there are for tampons. Our tampons do not contain synthetic fibres, chemical additives, fragrance, dyes, chlorine bleach, residues of pesticides or herbicides. When all of this (which you’ll find in the big name mainstream tampons) comes into close contact with the skin of the vulva – which has the thinnest and most sensitive skin of anywhere on the body – it moves straight into the bloodstream, making its toxic way directly to our delicate organs.
Periods are usually seen as taboo (sigh) to talk about. How do you think we can change this? How do we make the conversation around periods and bleeding “normal?”
If we’ve got anything to say about it, period taboos and all the shame and embarrassment that comes along with them will be totally stamped out. We don’t just see period taboos as something annoying or a hangover from a more conservative era, it’s literally preventing people who have periods getting access to the education and information they need to be able to correctly and safely manage their period with dignity. We’re never gonna end period poverty if we can’t even address the stigmas which contribute to it, just like we’re never gonna erase toxic period products from the face of the earth unless people know what’s in them and the dangers of using them.
For us, community comes first. If we can create a space online where talking about periods is completely normalised, then our hope is that this will trickle out into wider society. If every single person in our community takes a little bit of that confident and shame-free attitude towards periods back into their other communities, we’re having a subtle but strong impact on the normalisation of periods. Periods are not taboo and treating them as though they are leave a lot of people who have periods in the dark about how their bodies function.
All periods are different. So why have we always been taught that “period pains are normal” and to “suck it up?” How do you see this changing?
Pain is a very very real issue, and it’s a feminist issue. Women’s pain has been dismissed and diminished since the dawn of time. We’ve been taught to mistrust our bodies, told that we’re weak, and fed a narrative that to be born female means we have to sacrifice, time and time again, our own health, comfort, and happiness for others. In other words? Shut up and get on with it. This is finally changing thanks to so many things. Feminism has come a long way, sex and reproductive health education has come a long way, and the internet is a huge player in this too. Everyone has a platform to talk about the things that are important to them, we’re no longer reliant on mainstream media outlets to start conversations about taboo subjects, we can do it from our own Instagram pages.
There’s a long way to go, of course, because doctors still disproportionally downplay women’s pain as compared with men’s. It takes an average of 7.5 trips to get a diagnosis of endometriosis – after the first trip to the doctor. It’s unbelievable to us that there’s been a pill since the 1990s that allows old men to keep their hard-on, but there’s still no effective treatment for (or even research into) period pain! We’re hoping to do our bit by helping to lead the change.
What have your experiences been like?
I used to experience awful periods. Luckily they’ve improved a lot since I’ve learnt more about my body and which products work best for me, but I still have some bad days from time to time. A few years ago, I had a copper coil fitted, which graced me with heavy bleeding for seven to ten days each month for about a year. When I say heavy, I mean heavy – on the worst days, I’d soak through a super plus tampon within half an hour. This would typically be accompanied by cramps that would keep me in bed for the first day (if only someone had invented a CBD cramp oil then!) Despite running a period brand I can still get taken by surprise when my period shows up (sometimes I slack on the cycle tracking!). I get that “ah-ha” moment where my moody behaviour over the previous couple of days suddenly makes sense again!
Tell us more about Fem Space. How did you build up the Ohne community?
Fem space came out of our desire to have a space where we could talk freely and in depth with our customers and community about anything and everything related to periods, bodies, sex, cycles, and anything else society considers taboo or shameful. These topics are so multi-layered and complicated and we wanted there to be a space where people could learn about them without the shame and stigma that is all too often attached to them.
The Ohne community has grown really organically – people like our products and/or content and they share it with friends who they know will benefit from it as much as they have. One of the most rewarding parts of what we do is getting emails or DMs from people thanking us for helping them grow their understanding of their own bodies or re-think the internalised shame they’ve been conditioned (as we all have) to feel about their bodily functions. A really integral part of Ohne is creating boundary-pushing content both on social media and in on our content platform that challenges and calls out stereotypes and educates people about their bodies in a fun, informal way.
How can women start learning more about their bodies through their cycle?
We’re huuuuge champions of cycle tracking. Knowing where you’re at in your menstrual cycle and what your hormones are up to is a great way to stay in tune with your body and adapt to its needs at any given time. Start on the first day of your period (day one of your cycle) and just note down a few key symptoms/feelings everyday. You can do this in an app, your planner, or the notes on your phone. After tracking for 2-3 cycles you’ll start to see trends, and then you can apply the info you’ve learnt from places like Fem Space to help you interpret and harness that information. Once you’re in tune with the rhythms of your reproductive and sex hormones, you’ll become aware of the ways in which they affect your energy levels, mood, motivation, appetite, etc, differently every day. You’ll also learn how to adapt to your body’s needs so you can feel and be your best self at every stage of your cycle.
What has been the biggest difficulty in starting and running a business?
We have, of course, come up against some real challenges being two young, female founders in an industry dominated by men (but, really, aren’t they all bloody dominated by men?) I’ll never forget what it was like for Nikki and I during our fundraising period – pitching a tampon brand to a room full of middle-aged men who were all blushing and refusing to make eye contact with us! There were some who not only wouldn’t take our samples home for a wife, daughter, or friend, but wouldn’t even touch them! Honestly, you couldn’t make it up. We’ve got a sense of humour about absolutely everything though and we’re so lucky we’re going through all of it with our best friend. And, we knew what we were getting ourselves into right from the off!
What is a piece of advice you’d give to other women looking to start their own business?
Don’t go into it lightly! It’s going to be a lot of long nights, you’re going to forget what a weekend looks like, and there are going to be more frustrating, disheartening hurdles and obstacles that you can even imagine, so you need to passionate enough about your idea and believe in it enough to get you through it all (even – especially – when no one else believes in it). Also if you’re going out for investment, prepare yourself for sexist, cliched questions. They do, unfortunately come up (Nikki and I have been asked about when we’re going to “go off to have babies” many times!) But you can’t let them shake you – if people still think like it’s the 1950s, that’s on them, not you. Just prepare a killer answer and move on!