Is this right?” one young man says, as he fumbles around with a tampon, fire slowly crawling up his neck to his jawline.
All the young women in the room laugh uproariously as he tries to pull the cotton cylinder out the wrong way, side-eyes and elbow-poking rampant in the room.
Other guys are staring at the device like it’s some sort of projectile missile lobbed over from planet female, desperately trying to find some sort of launch code on the wrapper to help them through this awkwardness. Finally, one is fed up with the clueless shenanigans and, putting an elbow on each knee, holds the tampon in front of him and takes it out of its paper home.
“Look guys,” he says. “This is how it’s done.” And with all eyes on him, he grips the applicator between his thumb and forefinger and then shoots the tampon into the middle of the room. The ladies clap and cheer him on, while the guys look at the product in their hands as if finally seeing the light. Tampons sail through the room.
Claire Coder, blending in amongst the high school seniors, claps and declares, “You are all Flow Bros now!” Everyone cheers; the young women laughing so hard tears are squeaking out of their eyes.
The driving force behind the nascent organization Aunt Flow, Coder is visiting this classroom today to discuss her project, as well as to demystify the world of periods. At 19, Coder is a teenager herself, with all the endearing excitement, energy, and goofiness that marks that optimistic time.
Following the Toms model, Aunt Flow is a subscription delivery tampon service that provides one box of tampons to the customer and matches that with one box going to a social service organization. Buy one, give one.
Her timing is perfect as tampons are currently having a cultural moment. Recently, Newsweek ran a cover with the headline, “There will be blood: Get over it.” that tackled issues such as menstruation shaming, the tampon tax, and demystifying the period. Instagram felt the wrath of social media when they repeatedly took down a photo of a woman lying on a bed with a period stain visible on her sweatpants. The photo was eventually allowed on the site.
It’s difficult, initially, for the students to wrap their heads around the idea that tampons are a political issue; I mean, you can just get ‘em at the store, right?
Coder explains that, while it’s true they are readily available, it is not that easy for homeless or low-income women. Tampons—and other feminine hygiene products—aren’t covered by food stamps or WIC, and are currently classified as a “luxury item,” which subjects them to tax. A tax that doesn’t apply to certain over-the-counter medications, dandruff shampoo, and—in states that don’t tax food—candy. There are some states, including New Jersey and Pennsylvania, which have gotten rid of the tampon tax. In Ohio, there is currently a lawsuit in the Ohio Court of Claims seeking to end the tax, brought to the court by four Cleveland women.
“In shelters, the shelter itself and food take precedent over feminine hygiene. At the YWCA, there is no budget line-item for these products; they rely on gift-cards and donations. A woman is allotted only two tampons per month.”
The students go bug-eyed and gasp. Even the guys know this is a bad thing.
“And the YWCA specifically serves women,” Coder said, her voice riding with exasperation. “To make matters worse, condoms and lube are not taxed.”
Well, the students practically fall out of their chairs and vow to help Coder in her declaration of war on tampon tax.
Coder has never been one to give up on a fight.
In the fourth grade, she went blind for a year—just like that, her retinas detached.
“I went to doctors all over the country and they threw steroids at me,” she said. “I was in fourth grade and weighed 120 pounds, I had squirrel cheeks and I couldn’t even see myself … I thought I must be hideous, I thought that people hated me. It was the hardest time of my life.” She was bullied in school and even though her parents told her over and over that she was beautiful, she wasn’t sure what to believe. Even in fourth grade, through all the tears, the young Coder knew she wanted to make an impact and change lives. “You can have a vision, even when you’re blind.”
Eventually, a doctor in Boston was able to reattach her retinas so she could see again. Although it was the worst year of her life, Coder learned a lot from the mistreatment and uncertainty she experienced and never, ever gave up on wanting to change lives.
After creating a badge business her sophomore year in high school (“There’s a Badge for That”) and running herself ragged between AP classes, the business, and trying to put her best self forward in the college race, the Toledo-native found herself at the Ohio State University. Sadly, it wasn’t a great match. Coder wasn’t into the party scene, and being an only child, the size of the school and dorm-life in general just wasn’t working out.
Coder realized she didn’t know what she was doing.
And then came Columbus Startup Weekend.
“It’s a 54-hour event where you formulate, pitch your idea on Sunday, and maybe get money,” she said. “Everything was tech, tech, tech and I wanted to help the world! I thought, what do I constantly need? Tampons!
I had an idea for Safety-pon that turned into Aunt Flow. My team was two women in their sixties and I had so much positive support!” Coder’s idea eventually came in second place and Aunt Flow started, well, flowing. “The more I learned, the more passionate I became.”
Soon, Coder decided to leave OSU to see where Aunt Flow would lead.
To get the initial stock of tampons, Coder and Aunt Flow are hosting a crowd-funding project. The idea of a delivery-service for tampons hits all gender notes. “If men want to really treat their girl,” laughed Coder. “It would be the end of you standing in the tampon aisle and wondering what box to buy.”
The tampons themselves will be 100 percent organic cotton and 75 percent biodegradable—so changing the world doesn’t have to hurt it. Once funded and the project gets rolling, Aunt Flow will choose a different social service organization every three months to be the recipient of the one-for-one set-up. After the three months are up, she explained, the organization can still get their tampons from Flow at cost.
Back in the classroom, Coder is head cheerleader to her new team of Aunt Flows and Flow Bros.
A student asks why not just give low-income and homeless women Diva cups? Coder explained that not everyone has a reliable place to wash them; that sometimes women go days without running water.
A hush goes over the classroom as many of the seniors realize “real” life isn’t “reel” life.
Brightening, Coder talks about her Aunt Flow costume and videos she makes to start dialogue around menstruation issues. The class starts smiling again, and trading “worst period stories ever” anecdotes. The guys are leaning in—curious and maybe a little freaked out—to be included in the conversation about white pants and no convenience stores in sight.
Coder walks around the room, chatting easily with the young people. They, in turn, are in awe that someone so close to their own age has formed a plan to actually change the world.
A hand goes up, “What is the website again?”
For more information and to donate to the cause, visit www.auntflow.org.