You would have been forgiven for thinking that the crowd lining up outside a warehouse venue in Chelsea Thursday night was there for a mass wedding: everyone was dressed in white, radiantly young, and full of hope. The line wrapped around the block. A young woman in a white dress, heels, and a tan baseball cap that read MOIST walked briskly up and down, eyeballing outfits.
“If you’re not wearing white on top, you’re not going to be able to sit down,” she said to the one person who wasn’t wearing white. The crowd hushed. Everyone looked at me.
“OK,” I said.
“You can stand, though,” she said consolingly, and clicked away.
By now, particularly if you live in New York and have to look at subway ads every day, you know what Thinx are: underwear made of cotton, spandex, and “an application of silver,” per their website. You’re supposed to menstruate into them. Their public relations lady Chelsea sends incredibly wacky, cheerfully unhinged emails that, since we wrote about them, have only gotten weirder (“Hey lil potato dumplin,” a recent one began, “Hope this heat hasn’t made you french fried!... get it... omg that was so dumb kill me.”)
And now, as New York Fashion Week got underway, they were branching out into that too, with a performance dubbed “Intersection 2016.” They arrived at media offices around the city with invitations encased in concrete, which you had to break, in the way that one might smash the patriarchy or a ceiling made out of some other material. It turned out the smashing was for use in a promotional video, in which Jezebel features editor Joanna Rothkopf is now immortalized:
“This ain’t your typical fashion show y’all!” an invitation added. “We can’t say much because #mystery & #intrigue, but we can promise that this will be an unforgettable, truly unmissable night of feminism + performance art + rad party times , in a 12,000 sq. foot warehouse, no less.”
As it turned out, the #intrigue was as follows: the white-wearing audience was led into the warehouse, seated on cubes, and asked to not get up. (The press were seated in a mezzanine area; an achy, rapidly aging woman wearing black was, in fact, able to have a seat.) The lights dimmed. Performers popped up from cubes in the audience and talked about menstruation and empowerment and Missy Elliott. They were varied: a model from South Sudan named Mari Malek, who was a refugee in Egypt before coming to the United States and becoming “a model, actress, DJ, and most important, a humanitarian,” spoke before Sue Smith, a comedian who mused on her “white girl problems.”
Sawyer Devuyst, a trans man and model who appears in some of Thinx’s subway ads, was by turns cheeky and serious: “What do trans people want?” he mused. “I want a whole pizza from Speedy Romeo.”
He paused. “I want to feel worthy of love,” he added. Devuyst ended his monologue by leading the room in a chant: “My name is __ and I can do anything.”
It took a while to notice that all the performers were wearing something white on top, tucked in or torn away to reveal Thinx on the bottom. It took even longer to realize the newspapers we were sitting on were actually programs, bearing a credo about what the period undies mean: “We are decidedly not a fashion brand. We create innovations in the period space that prioritize the needs of menstruating humans (for once, amirite)?” A smaller gray piece of paper fluttered out: it was a modified version of the wheel of privilege and oppression, something you might have seen a few times if you ever attended a liberal arts school or worked some hours at a food co-op.
The last speaker was Thinx’s most visible founder, Miki Agrawal, who created the underwear with her twin sister Radha and their friend Antonia Saint Dunbar. She was freshly returned from Burning Man where, she noted in an essay on Medium, lots of women were wearing Thinx. She spoke with a white skirt around her knees, Thinx fully exposed, about her Japanese mom and Indian dad getting married, her own “beautifully middle class” upbringing in Montreal, and the realization that she was privileged on a family trip to India, when she saw a little boy with severe elephantiasis in his feet.
“I felt so powerfully lucky,” she told the room. “It was that moment that I recognized I won the lottery of life.”
Agrawal teared up as she talked about the need for “servant leadership” and “social entrepreneurship” that exists as “service to others.” (For every pair of Thinx sold, the company sends an unspecified amount of money to Afripads, a Ugandan company that makes reusable sanitary napkins. Ugandan girls, particularly in rural areas, often miss school during their periods because of a lack of menstrual products, bathrooms, and shaming and bullying about menstruation.)
Agrawal congratulated the performers on “moving the narrative forward, so we can create unity.” She had the crowd read a pledge written on the opposite side of the privilege wheel, excerpted from Dr. Maria Root’s Multiracial Oath of Social Responsibility. It promises to fight “all forms of oppression, as the oppression of one is the oppression of all.” Besides recognizing one’s own prejudices, it adds, “I know that is it neither helpful nor productive to argue over who is more oppressed. I recognize that my life interconnects with all other lives. I will make a difference.”
It was very earnest. It was a tiny bit disjointed. The urge to make fun was powerful, but it wasn’t really fair. What, I asked myself, did I want from a period underwear brand, or indeed, a fashion show? Oppression wheels and discussions of privilege and showcasing a diverse group of writers and performers was surely better than watching Kanye’s exhausted models keel over in the heat. The performers were paid, I learned from an email exchange with PR lady Chelsea, and the target audience — the pretty, 23-year-old, glowing people dressed in white — looked really, really moved. Many of their Instagram captions noted that they cried during the event.
“The bar is in the back corner by the musicians,” an announcer chirped, as the performance ended and the audience folded up their white cube seats to take home. “And we’re selling underwear!”
Bartenders served rosé and cocktails with punny names (To Queef at Sunrise). Somewhere, apparently, an artist was doing stick-and-poke tattoos. I found Allie Jones, a former Gawker writer now at The Cut. We collected some wine and lined up to get our photos taken at a photo booth. We don’t know each other very well, so obviously we talked immediately, at length, and in great detail about our periods.
One more thing remained: I walked to the corner, shelled out $24, and bought a pair of Thinx. They felt very thin, and not unlike swimsuit material. There was a tiny bit of extra padding where you would expect it to be. I dragged them home very late that night and wished, for the first time in 18-ish years of menstruation, that I was bleeding so that I could test-drive them.
I put them on to write this piece, and I will tell you: My butt looks acceptable. My crotch feels lightly buffered, like it’s wearing earmuffs.
I stuffed the panties in a drawer and put the oppression wheel in a pile of papers somewhere. I’m not sure what to do with any of it.