Almost five months ago, students of Thomas Worthington were greeted with a surprise after walking into the women’s bathroom. Over the summer, every girls bathroom in the school was equipped with something that had been both highly anticipated, and yet met with skepticism.
A menstrual product dispenser.
Decked out in vibrant orange and white, hip and modern, it provided both tampons and pads. Packaged in paper, with cardboard applicators, the products were biodegradable. There were a lot of them— enough that, conceivably, you could go through your day without even worrying about not having access to them, since there was an ample supply in every bathroom.
The best part about the whole situation?
They were completely free.
That was in August. The Thomas Worthington student body has been supplied with these products for almost five months. How did this come about? How has this affected the Thomas Worthington Student Body?
For a few months last school year, flyers could be seen in almost every woman’s restroom. They featured a QR code, which would then lead to an online poll, where students could vote on questions such as “how would you feel about free menstrual products in Thomas?” and leave their own comments.
A few months later, as the summer passed, the product dispensers appeared in the restrooms. That much is common knowledge.
However, what many do not know is that the implementation of menstrual products in TWHS is the result of a concentrated effort by a group of students dedicated to making change within Worthington.
“We realized there was a lot wrong with the school, and we wanted to change it,” said Ellie Stephens, a member of the group.
Originally, the group had a large variety of possible goals, ranging from changing the school’s start time to getting free counselling for students. They met with Mr. Duffy, a teacher at Thomas Worthington, in order to discuss their possible goals.
“Initially, the group of students wanted to change the school start time, so students wouldn’t have to wake up so early,” Said Duffy. “However, we talked with Mr. Scully and the Worthington Department of Transportation, and we realized that changing the school start time just wasn’t something that could be done.”
According to Duffy, that’s when the group decided to focus on something more achievable. “Menstrual products made sense because the administration had already been considering it, and we knew it would have a quick, tangible impact.”
“A lot of kids don’t have tampons and pads at home,” said Stephens. “They’re expensive. Before, if you needed them you had to go to the nurse’s office, and to do that you had to get a pass. Now, you can just get them in the bathroom.”
According to the TW Prinical, Mr. Scully, the school administration had been considering providing free tampons and pads, but the group of students convinced them to take action. However, the school was not yet sure how to implement them.
“We were originally planning on doing a trial run, by providing them in one or two bathrooms, but we met with an expert who informed us that it would be better to just provide them in all of the bathrooms,” said Scully. “People might have started hoarding them because they weren’t sure if they would have access to the products throughout the day.”
Instead of a trial run, a poll was put into several girls bathrooms, created and accessed by the group of students and Duffy. It featured a QR code that students could scan with their phones, in order to take an online survey, asking their opinions on possible free products.
There were 177 responses in total, and they were overwhelmingly positive. “We had no negative responses,” said Duffy. “The responses were split about 50-50 between ‘Yes, I’d use them,’ and ‘Yes, I’d use them in an emergency,’”
“The amount of responses was really unexpected,” said Stephens.
In addition, several comments were left on the survey by students. These were also majorly positive, aside from a few comments talking about the cost or requesting certain types of products (such as tampons with plastic instead of cardboard applicators.)
Clearly, free menstrual products were something the Thomas student body wanted and would use. The school district decided to go ahead with the program.
The school district contacted the company Aunt Flow, a Columbus-based company dedicated to “providing free menstrual products to employees, students and guests,” according to their website. Aunt Flow not only works to ensure all people who have periods have access to menstrual products, they also work on lessening the struggle those with periods face as they have to deal with them in their daily lives, and the stigma associated with periods.
According to Aunt Flow’s website, “offering free menstrual products increases school attendance amongst girls by 2.4%.” While they supply to a number of paying customers, Aunt Flow also boasts an impressive number of 500,000 products donated– for every ten tampons or pads sold, they will donate one to Period.org, an organization that helps distribute products to people in need.
In addition to providing products to students at schools and colleges such as Denison and Princeton, Aunt Flow also supplies companies such as Twitter and Google.
In order to supply Aunt Flow in their buildings, businesses and schools supplying Aunt Flow products purchase the products from Aunt Flow’s website, and then supply them within their bathrooms, using Aunt Flow dispensers.
Not only are all of the wrappers of Aunt Flow’s products biodegradable, their tampons and pads themselves are organic, and contain “no synthetics, rayons, or dyes.” While applicators for the tampons are made of cardboard, they have a smooth tip similar to those of plastic applicators.
“We chose them because the company clearly had the best knowledge on how to implement something like this, and it was local,” said Scully.
Worthington City Schools now had students dedicated to implementing access to free menstrual products, hundreds of positive responses, and a company that would provide them with exactly what they needed. Now, with the funding secured, it was time.
Come August, free tampons and pads were provided, not only in Thomas Worthington, but in every middle and high school in the district of Worthington City Schools.
When asked if their group had heard about other schools doing similar projects, Stephens replied that she knew about the work of other students, specifically one girl who was trying to do the same thing as their group but had been prevented from doing so by their school. Stephens acknowledged the foundation that their example provided for her, “It really inspired me.”
Now that free menstrual products are available in all bathrooms how has the Thomas Worthington student body reacted?
A survey conducted in early December in seven of the most frequently used women’s restrooms offers some insight.
The survey consisted of two different sections: a poll, where students could vote on how frequently they use the products, and a section for comments, where students could write feedback or their opinions on the products. Both offer some illumination on just how much providing free products can affect those with periods.
The poll, which had nearly 400 responses, yielded some interesting results.
There were 49 students who stated that they “never” used the free menstrual products. This seems like a significant amount– until you take it into account that this is only one-eighth of the responses to the poll.
Seven-eighths, or 87.5% of respondents, indicated that they had used the products at least a “few” times.
Meanwhile, students who stated that they used the free products “whenever I am on my period” made up nearly 43% of the respondents.
If the results of this poll could be extended to the entire female population of Thomas Worthington, that would mean 734 out of (approx.) 839 female students in the school would have relied on the free menstrual products at one point or another. That is 734 students who did not have to fear being caught off guard by their periods, who did not have to miss class to get pads from the nurse’s office, who did not have to worry about affording a product at school they simply could not go without.
If these results could be extended to the entire affected population of Worthington Schools– all the middle and high schools– the number would be even greater.
According to this data, the implementation of menstrual products in Thomas Worthington is an undoubtable success. The feedback from student comments paints an even more nuanced and personal look at how students have been affected by this service.
“I used to have to wait to get them from the nurse and get in trouble for how long it took,” wrote one student. “Greatest service ever!” wrote another.
One student wrote that the products “have saved my dignity multiple times and are a huge anxiety reliever.” This sentiment was shared with multiple other students, one of whom simply wrote “I NEED THEM, LITERALLY” in all capital letters.
Three different students wrote about how the free pads and tampons helped them with money. “I can’t afford them sometimes, so these help a lot,” wrote a student, signing it with a heart.
However, the most common comments were short and simple– yet almost all stating how “useful,” “great,” “amazing” and “helpful” it is to have free tampons and pads in their bathrooms. Thirty-seven people wrote comments that were nothing but pure positivity and gratitude for the service of having free menstrual products in their bathrooms.
Of course, not all the comments were positive. There were a significant number of comments written by students expressing issues to do with the products. However, few of these had to do with the idea of the products themselves but rather how they were implemented.
“They are great, but you need to supply more and make sure every bathroom has some,” wrote one student. Indeed, shortages of tampons and pads are common– on the morning the polls were hung up in the bathrooms, at least two of the bathrooms were completely out of products (although they were refilled by the next day). One of the major benefits of having free menstrual products in all the bathrooms is consistency– in an emergency, it is incredibly helpful to be able to rely on a consistent source of products. Frequent shortages erase some of the trust students have that the products will be a resource they can rely on.
In addition, several students expressed their concerns over the tampon size. “Sizes bigger than regular,” mentioned one student, while another commented that “more than one size would be great!” In addition, another student asked for panty liners.
The fact that the tampon applicators are made of cardboard was also a source of concern, with students expressing their dislike for tampons with cardboard applicators stating that “it hurts,” and another simply saying “nobody wants cardboard tampons.”
Taking into account that Aunt Flow was judged by the district of Worthington City Schools to be the best choice for providing free menstrual products, it is unclear if these problems are able to be solved.
If Aunt Flow were to release a line of super or super-plus tampons, it would be very positively received, especially since a majority of students and workers (Aunt Flow’s self-described primary demographic) who rely on tampons likely don’t want to have to change them every hour. Heavy flows are both very inconveniencing and fairly common, and it is actually rather surprising that Aunt Flow hasn’t included multiple sizes in their tampon lineups yet. Panty liners, while less popular than super or super-plus tampons, are also a product that would likely be welcomed.
However, the cardboard applicators is another story. One of Aunt Flow’s biggest points is that it is biodegradable, and of biodegradable applicator materials, it seems that cardboard is the only possible option.
In addition, the design on Aunt Flow’s cardboard tampons is different from a traditional cardboard tampon– they’re slim and with a rounded tip that covers the cotton. In contrast, a traditional cardboard tampon’s applicator is barely an applicator, with the cotton inside completely uncovered, making it an extremely unpleasant experience to insert. Aunt Flow’s tampons, by contrast, are only mildly uncomfortable.
It seems that, as long as Aunt Flow is the primary provider for menstrual products for Thomas Worthington, the benefits of their tampons outweigh the negatives.
The final thing to mention is the vandalism. For the first few months of the 2019 school year, there were repeated incidents of bathroom vandalization via tampon. Social media was flooded with pictures of tampons stuck to the walls and ceilings. It seemed as if you couldn’t go a week without being greeted with the sight of a tampon on the ceiling in one of the bathrooms.
“It’s very frustrating,” said Ellie Stephens, the member of the student group interviewed. “It’s a waste of products that people rely on.”
Similar sentiments are echoed in the comments written by students. “Just stop putting them on the ceiling,” said one student.
This waste of tampons does not just serve as an annoyance, however. It also revives fears that free menstrual products are not a right, they are a privilege– one that can be taken away. As written by one student, “we should probably be more thankful since this is really helpful, and we may not want them taken away because of the misuse.”
“Tampons have been viewed as privileges for so long that it frightens people when they think they’re being taken away,” said Emma Ruiz, a teacher at Thomas Worthington. And, as is shown from the comments written by students and the results from the poll, free menstrual products are more than just a perk. They are truly a necessity.
One student wrote that before the products were implemented, she had to go to the nurse’s office “25/8.” Another wrote that she used them for “emergency purposes.”
“It’s helped so much more than I thought it would,” said a student. Why should people have to struggle to get something necessary for them to function? Why should people have to treat the provision of a necessity as a privilege and a luxury?
Thankfully, Worthington’s tampons are in no danger of being taken away. According to Mr. Scully, “We treat them as we’d treat any other hygiene product. We don’t view it as a privilege, we view it as something similar to toilet paper. If people were using toilet paper to vandalize the bathrooms, we’d just clean it up and absorb the cost.”
That’s exactly what Worthington has been doing, and so students can breathe easy, knowing their products are here to stay.
However, what about outside of Worthington?
The student group that originally approached the district had been inspired after reading an article about a girl who had been denied trying to implement free menstrual products in her school. Worldwide, 1.2 billion live without access to adequate sanitation and hygiene. In the U.S., women often have trouble affording menstrual products. Although Ohio has recently repealed the “pink tax”, there is still a long way to go.
Worthington Schools’ free menstrual products are an anomaly, but they shouldn’t be. Nevertheless, they are a step in the right direction– a better direction.
As one student wrote,“It’s about time!”