Fierce

Why This Latina Started The Bloomi, The First Digital Marketplace For Clean Intimate Care

Would you put something on your vulva that hasn’t been tested by a government agency? Turns out, it’s likely you already are. While our genital organs are extremely sensitive, oftentimes the everyday products we use to keep them clean, safe and itch-free are unregulated and filled with unexamined ingredients that could be causing our private parts more harm than good. You wouldn’t know this because most personal hygiene products are also not required to list its ingredients on its packaging. Luckily, the Bloomi, a digital marketplace for clean intimate care, has taken on the job for the sake of all our vaginas.

Launched in 2018, the Bloomi is the first and only online shop selling and informing people about toxin-free hygiene, menstruation and sexual products. While there are many big-name brands at pharmacies selling items that are “pH balanced” or for “sensitive skin,” because these trusted goods are unregulated, many are deceitful and include components that could lead to adverse effects. Unlike your local CVS or Walgreens, the products on the Bloomi’s digital shelves are tested, so every sensitive wash, tampon or condom the market carries is safe.

This was essential for the company’s founder and CEO, Rebecca Alvarez Story, who dealt with pH imbalance and vaginal dryness for years because she was unable to find products that were as “gentle” or “hygienic” as companies advertised. The Mexican-American businesswoman, who spent her career working in sexuality wellness and research, was aware of the loopholes that existed for intimate care brands and how this has led to mass-produced products that had harmed, not helped, the women around her. Knowing that people were interested in curated clean products, she thought it was time to give them what they wanted and deserved.

“I think a marketplace like the Bloomi is essential from a public health standpoint. For women and femmes, looking at it as a wellness topic, we need to be able to trust that the products we are putting on our bodies and in our bodies are healthy, and right now that’s not happening,” Alvarez Story, 33, told FIERCE.

According to Alvarez Story, most intimate care products fall into the category of cosmetics, which isn’t heavily regulated in the US. As a result, big companies, which tend to use cheaper ingredients or include components that make their products smell “fresh” or have long shelf lives, sell products that are loaded with elements that could be harmful. Because these brands aren’t required to disclose ingredients on their packaging, they’re also able to throw trendy words like “organic” or “sensitive” on their items and hide all the toxins that are actually festering inside its bottles.

“A product for our labia lips has the same rule on labeling that lipstick does, even though our bodies have different areas that need different things,” the Oakland, Calif.-based entrepreneur said. “Testing for products is minimal and some don’t even need to be tested, giving companies a lot of leeway. They can kind of make anything. As long as they are not putting a couple extremely harmful ingredients in it, there’s no governing agency telling them they can’t sell it. There are no rules for intimate care products.”

The negative outcome of untested products varies. For some, it’s minor: some dryness, irritated skin or pH imbalance. But for others, Alvarez Story says, it can be more extreme. Some of the ingredients can cause vaginal infections, skin damage on the vulva, pelvic inflammatory disease and could even lead to cancer. For example, in December 2018, Kimberly-Clark recalled its U by Kotex Sleek Tampons after several reports that the hygiene product was unraveling or coming apart inside some users’ bodies. The unwinding caused some women infections, vaginal irritation and vaginal injuries, among other symptoms.

“If we talk about the body, the vulva and vagina are the most absorbent parts of our body. Everything we put on and in it ends up in our bloodstream in seconds, so we should be aware of what we are putting into our bodies,” she said.

This is especially true for Latinas, and other women of color, who Alvarez Story says have a higher risk of experiencing adverse effects from intimate care products. Due to early messaging that menstruation is dirty and lessons that overwashing is good for the skin and smelling “clean” is a reflection of being clean, women of color tend to purchase fragranced products, which are usually the most harmful, and overclean their sensitive vulva skin. Even more, Alvarez Story says that Black and brown women often already have slightly higher pH levels than white women because of our diverse microbial profile. As a result, women of color are both culturally and anatomically more susceptible to vaginal irritation, infection and pH imbalance triggered by hygienic products.

At the Bloomi, each of the 100-plus items sold on the digital marketplace has been screened. In fact, when Alvarez Story began working on her business in 2017, she tested 5,000 products, and only 2 percent met her clean criteria. While each category is reviewed against their own “clean categories,” meaning menstrual cups are examined with a different standard than wipes, bath salts or sex toys, there is a list of banned ingredients, which include toxic components like glycerin, parabens, petroleum, phthalates, synthetic dyes and more. Additionally, all liquids, like washes, moisturizers, ingrown concentrates and lubricants, are tested in an independent lab to ensure the product matches the brand’s claims.

The lengthy screening process has limited how many items are available on the marketplace, but Alvarez Story hopes to have at least 200 products for purchase by the end of 2019. As the small team builds its inventory, it’s also working on its own affordable intimate care line that they hope to introduce in 2020, recognizing that many people don’t buy clean items not because they don’t want to but rather because it’s more expensive than pharmacy store products.

Alvarez Story wants the Bloomi to be a trusted go-to place for all intimate care needs, including information and materials that educate people and destigmatize their bodies and sexuality. On Intimate Talk, the Bloomi’s blog and newsletter, a team of professionals share modern, research-based intimate health articles and guides on topics ranging from Black motherhood, using and cleaning period underwear, the causes and prevention of painful sex, how to practice body positity and the different types of condoms, among so much more.

“I don’t want people to just come to our site and buy from us. I want people to come in and feel like they’re adding value to their lives, and not just from a product,” she said.

With the slogan “be the CEO of your own body,” the Bloomi ultimately wants to offer women and femmes information and products that can help them make decisions about their health, pleasure and reproductive lives for themselves.

Read: This Puerto Rican Illustrator Uses Art To Explore Her Sexuality

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A 14-Year-Old Was Reportedly Driven To Suicide After She Was Humiliated At Her Own School For Having Her Period

Fierce

A 14-Year-Old Was Reportedly Driven To Suicide After She Was Humiliated At Her Own School For Having Her Period

A 14-year-old Kenyan girl killed herself after being period shamed by a teacher when she did not have access to a pad. The tragedy has caused unrest in Kenya, unifying women Parliament members to end period stigma, causing parents to mobilize, and launching a formal investigation into the girl’s death. Period shame around the world is an oppressive force that undermines bodily autonomy, education, and personal freedoms for girls and nonbinary people by stigmatizing a basic body function.

According to the United Nations Population Fund report on Menstrual Health Management in East and Southern Africa, “Studies from Kenya find that schoolgirls engage in transactional sex to pay for menstrual products, particularly for the younger, uneducated, economically dependent girls.” 

In the United States, a survey of 1500 women and 500 men by THINX revealed that 58 percent of women felt a sense of embarrassment for simply being on their period and 42 percent said they had been explicitly period shamed.

While Kenya has recently taken steps to make sanitary napkins more accessible at schools, this structural failure has led to a tragic loss. 

Period shaming can have tragic consequences. 

A 14-year-old Kenyan girl started her period for the very first time while at middle school in Bomet County, Kenya. When she couldn’t obtain a pad, the girl began to bleed through her school uniform. Unable to concentrate, due to the incident, she asked for help. Then her teacher berated her in class, calling her “dirty” for staining her clothes. 

Forced to leave the classroom, she walked home. After telling her mother what happened, she said she was going to go fetch water, but instead, she killed herself. According to a local Kenyan newspaper Daily Nation, Konoin Sub-County Police Commander Alex Shikondi said that officers took the girl’s body to a nearby hospital. 

“When police arrived at the scene, they found the girl had committed suicide… and the body was moved to Kapkatet Hospital mortuary,” said Commander Alex Shikondi.

Parents want answers.

The girl’s mother, Beatrice Koech, spoke to Daily Nation about what happened. She claimed her daughter believed the female teacher would be an ally to her, and help her understand what was happening. Instead, her daughter was shamed in front of the classroom. 

“She had nothing to use as a pad,” Koech told the newspaper. “When the blood stained her clothes, she was told to leave the classroom and stand outside.”

Koech reported the incident to police, but after four days of inaction, parents stormed the school in protest. Parents wanted to know why the teacher shamed the 14-year-old. Police threw tear gas canisters at the parents who were blocking the road to the school. Officers arrested five demonstrators. The school was closed and students were sent home. 

Basic Education Act of 2017

Kenya passed the Basic Education of 2017, which makes access to menstrual napkins mandatory in public schools across the country. Pads in public schools are not a mere luxury, the necessary product is inaccessible to many in the region. Just last year, the capital of Kenya itself was hit with a tampon shortage when there was massive Kotex recall in Nairobi due to a malfunctioning batch.

When a person has their period and no sanitary napkins or tampons, they are more likely to stay home from school. This can have negative effects on girls’ and nonbinary folks’ education and self-esteem, often making children feel like a burden. 

“The cost of menstrual products may also contribute to the perception that daughters are economically burdensome,” according to the United Nations

School is often the only place where students can get pads, which is why the Basic Education Act is great. Nevertheless, many schools have still not implemented the program or have been skipped over. 

Kenyans want justice.

According to BuzzFeed, “An organization called One Dollar for Life, which makes and distributes reusable pads to girls across Kenya, has ramped up its outreach in light of the girl’s death last week. Program manager Brenda Birrell told BuzzFeed News via email that the group plans to hand out 1,000 reusable pad kits — which also contain information about self-defense, female biology, and feminine hygiene — over the next two months.”

Women members of Kenyan’s Parliament occupied the Ministry of Education to pressure a police investigation. After parents and lawmakers held their ground, the police finally launched a formal investigation into the girl’s death.

“What must she be going through in her life to have that be her reaction?” Megan White Mukuria, whose organization ZanaAfrica Foundation provides pads and reproductive education to girls, told BuzzFeed. 

“The reality for a lot of women can be very difficult. [Maybe] her cup has not been filled, and her rights have not been taught to her.”

Revista Étnica Is The New Afro-Latino Magazine Gassing Up Our Afrolatinidad All The Way From Puerto Rico

Entertainment

Revista Étnica Is The New Afro-Latino Magazine Gassing Up Our Afrolatinidad All The Way From Puerto Rico

Since Gloriann Sacha Antonetty Lebrón was a child growing up in Carolina, Puerto Rico, she has been fascinated by journalism. She was captivated by the colorful glossies of Cosmopolitan and Revista Tú that sat on the shelves of local drug stores. She wanted to read about the latest beauty and fashion and be on top of entertainment and cultural news from Latin America and the United States. But more than this, she desired to be seen, to have glamorous and powerful Black women that resembled the matriarchs in her own family cover the magazines.

“I never had the opportunity here in Puerto Rico to see Black people, and Black women in particular, in magazines,” Lebrón told mitú. “None of them represented the beauty of my family, my friends, my community or myself.”

As a teenager, Lebrón’s father, who was raised in New York, introduced her to popular African-American publications geared toward women.

 While magazines like Ebony and Essence weren’t yet available in Puerto Rico, her father would have friends mail the glossy or bring them back from trips in order for Lebrón to have access to images and stories of women who looked like her. The unnecessary struggle it took for her to see herself represented in media and the joyous feeling she felt while flipping through page after page of enchanting dark-skinned women inspired Lebrón to one day start her own magazine in Puerto Rico specifically for Afro-Latina women.

In December of 2018, Lebrón’s teenage dreams came true.

 The now 38-year-old communications professional launched Revista Étnica, the first print magazine in Puerto Rico to represent the Caribbean archipelago’s vast and diverse Afro-Latinx population.

“Our community is marginalized. If you have dark skin, you generally don’t have an opportunity to feel like you belong and are a part of this society. We are only good for food, music and sports, and that’s something we want to change,” she said.

Through the biannual magazine, Étnica’s three-person staff and group of collaborators produce a stunning publication that covers beauty, fashion, entertainment, food and culture as well as investigative journalism that looks into the deep-rooted, and largely denied, racism that exists in Puerto Rico. 

In the first issue, writer Edmy Ayala delves into the racial disparities that exist on the archipelago and how the state works to protect the rights and uplift the talents of lighter-skinned Boricuas. 

The second volume, which published in August, features an essay that examines racism in Puerto Rico’s public school system, looking particularly at the ways in which codes of conduct target and punish Black youth. 

“Right now, it’s more critical than ever to be having these conversations,” Lebrón says. “Here, we understand that we are a mix. We are mestizos, with a rich culture that includes our Spanish heritage, Taíno heritage and, less important, our African heritage. Many use this to claim we are all the same here, that racism doesn’t exist. But me being a Black Puerto Rican woman, a young Black person, I can tell you that I struggle every day and experience racism in so many ways.”

This bigotry was particularly evident for Lebrón when she first attempted to launch Revista Étnica. In her mid-20s, she submitted a proposal for the publication in a contest and was one of the finalists. At the time, she was assigned a mentor who would help her work through her proposition and advise her on steps she could take to realize her project. A leading journalist in Puerto Rico, Lebrón was thrilled to have the guidance of an esteemed figure as she pursued her ambitions. That’s why she felt completely discouraged when the male leader suggested that her magazine would fail. 

“He said, ‘people in Puerto Rico don’t want to identify as Black,’” Lebrón recalls. “I started to believe that the magazine wasn’t important, and it took away my dream.”

Disheartened, Lebrón went on to start a different career in media, working in advertising and public relations. In this industry, she was once again confronted by anti-blackness in Puerto Rico. Few brands and companies put Black Boricuas in their ads, catered to Afro-Puerto Rican communities or even hired dark-skinned employees. 

After taking a job as the director of communications for a local nonprofit that put her in direct contact with Puerto Rican youth, Lebrón was reminded of the importance of representation. During each visit with boys and girls across the archipelago, Black children would race to Lebrón, excited to engage with a powerful leader who looked like them.

“I’d tell them, ‘you are beautiful and intelligent,’ and I would see the light in their eyes. I knew I had to do Étnica.”

A decade after Lebrón submitted her proposal for her dream publication, she entered the contest again and became a finalist once more. This time, she won a social enterprise award, which allowed her to fund the first issue of her magazine.

Today, Revista Étnica is available for purchase at Walgreens and Walmarts across Puerto Rico as well as some local shops in the metropolitan area. Through the magazine’s website, readers can order copies from all over the world. Lebrón says she has subscribers from the United States, Dominican Republic, Colombia, and even Switzerland. Additionally, the publication’s site and social media include a blog and content that offers insight and opinions on more timely news.

For Lebrón, Revista Étnica is more than a magazine; it’s also a community and a movement. 

Throughout the year, the publication hosts events, from parties to movie-watching groups, and has recently also launched a start-up program for Afro-Puerto Rican entrepreneurs. She says that her company’s success isn’t measured by its magazine sales but rather by how it can help create economic security for the Black community in Puerto Rico more broadly.

While materializing her wildest childhood fantasies has been both joyous and frightening, she says that ultimately this magazine and this movement is much bigger than her alone.

“I just want women who read Étnica to feel proud of their skin, their body, their imperfections. I want them to know there is a community with them, that they’re not alone,” Lebrón says.