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Health & Fitness: 'We treat tampons like Class A drugs and talk about them in hushed voices - I'm trying to change that'

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"We treat tampons like Class A drugs - we shove them up our sleeves, we pass them under the table, we talk about them in hushed voices," says Affi Parvizi-Wayne, who lives in Highgate, North London. "Nobody leaves home thinking: 'I need to take my loo paper with me'. If everyone had periods – men and women – I bet there'd be pads and tampons in every bathroom alongside loo paper."

Affi launched Freda in 2018 - despite a shock bladder cancer diagnosis © Affi Parvizi-Wayne Affi launched Freda in 2018 - despite a shock bladder cancer diagnosis

In 2017, Affi, who was working as a management consultant, began to investigate these observations. She says that she noticed that a handful of global corporations had a monopoly over the sale of period products and their ingredients did not have to be fully disclosed. During the Syrian refugee crisis, Affi says it struck her that period products were not always included in the hygiene kits provided by relief organisations.

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"All this stuff made me think: let's have a go at this," says Affi. "Let's see if we can change the narrative around periods, because...it's a true barrier to progress." In 2018, Affi launched her own sustainable period care business, named Freda, which aimed to do just that.

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Born in Iran, Affi moved to the UK in 1978, when she was 11. It was a year before the Iranian Revolution, and tensions were mounting. Leaving her parents in Iran, she moved to Brighton with her brother to stay with her aunt. She hated it, and even attempted a hunger strike in a bid to be sent back home (a temporary success: she returned to Iran for the summer, before being sent back to her aunt, who had moved to Broadstairs, Kent).

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Adjusting to a new culture was difficult. In Iran, Affi ate with a spoon and fork; here, she had to use a knife. "I was cold all the time. It was grey, so I felt quite miserable. I loved my school – my teachers were very kind – but I just missed my parents," says Affi.

Eventually, in 1981, Affi's parents joined her in the UK. As Baháʼís in Iran, they had been persecuted as a minority group, and arrived as asylum seekers. "They had to start a new life - they'd left their old lives behind, and with that came a huge element of uncertainty," says Affi. "I suddenly stopped being the child - I became the parent, because I knew my way round; I could speak the language...your life experience then diverges from your school friends, who are still children."

For Affi, now 54, it was a formative experience, which made her adaptable and resilient. "It makes you fearless, because you've lived with uncertainty. You've seen your parents literally losing an old life, surviving, and being grateful for safety, so your sense of what is important in life shifts. It moves away from material things...you put your focus in active relationships and friends."

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By 2017, Affi was looking for a change. "[Management consulting] wasn't really what I wanted to do. I [wanted] to do something of my own, something that was essential...I wasn't afraid of starting something new."

Freda was born the following year, aiming to improve access to period care with sustainable products. Supported by the Amazon Launchpad programme, it is a subscription service for period products, selling biodegradable cotton tampons and eco pads and donating a percentage of profits to other initiatives tackling period poverty. Currently, for example, they are donating period products to Ukrainian refugees.

A month after launching Freda, Affi was diagnosed with bladder cancer. At 48, she'd been experiencing irregular bleeding, which she says her GP had told her was part of the perimenopause. When she visited a gynaecologist, however, the result was different.

"I went in for a scan and came out with a bladder cancer diagnosis all in one day. It was a massive shock," says Affi. "I'm healthy, I exercised, I didn't smoke, I didn't drink - and I got cancer. It's indiscriminate. It could happen to anyone." Affi had chemotherapy for a year, which derailed her plans for Freda and forced her to concentrate on building the brand. "We were treading water," she says. "I thought: 'If Freda survives this, then we're good.'"

This Is Why We’re Calling Tampons And Sanitary Pads 'Period Products' Instead Of 'Feminine Hygiene'

  This Is Why We’re Calling Tampons And Sanitary Pads 'Period Products' Instead Of 'Feminine Hygiene' All the signs are being changed in Asda.Loads of us feel embarrassed by our periods, according to research by Unfabled it’s a massive 58% of menstruators that get red in the face when talking about it. This is sad and evidence of internalised misogyny as periods are, obviously, natural. On top of that, we spend 3000 days of our life menstruating, which (depending on your cramps) is a little depressing.

Thankfully, Affi's treatment was a success. And, despite the new challenges of lockdown, Affi came back with a renewed sense of purpose. She introduced a bladder care range to Freda - something that is, she argues, "even more taboo than periods". Affi adds, reflecting on her experience: "It makes you appreciate life - it empowers you to become proactive, because you realise that this could be taken away from you tomorrow. Whatever it is you want to do, don't wait."

Now, four years on, Affi is proud of the role that Freda has played in the wider movement to change the conversation around periods. She points to the fact that language like "sanitary products" and "feminine hygiene" have gradually been phased out. Marketing has improved, there is a greater choice of period products available and relief organisations do tend to supply period products now. "We have changed the narrative around the word, the way we describe periods and the products - that's an achievement. That's progress," says Affi. "And the fact that we survived. The company is here."

Affi doesn't take sole credit, of course. She is pleased that larger companies are amplifying their message and says that selling on Amazon has helped to make their products accessible. Freda takes a collaborative approach, working with other organisations like Bloody Good Period, a charity who also fight for menstrual equity.

Nevertheless, there is still work to be done. Affi's aim is universal access to period products - and she still hopes that one day, we'll see period products in all public toilets, like toilet paper or soap. In the next five to 10 years, she'd like to see "the sort of change where the status quo as we know it now becomes ludicrous." Change, argues Affi, is a gradual process, borne of small steps towards a larger goal. "This is how change happens. It's little by little. It doesn't have to be seismic."

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