Design & Creativity
February 15, 2024
8 minute read time

How women-led brands are pushing sexual health and wellness out of the taboo

Zea Asis
Photos by
Illustrations by

It was a reality not too long ago that women in the Philippines did not have access to maternal care, family planning methods, reproductive health guidance, and counseling. The Reproductive Health Law (RH Law) or Republic Act 10354 was only enacted in December 2012 under the Aquino administration since its filing in Congress in 1999. That is to say, it took thirteen years of unwavering advocacy and steadfast lobbying for the controversial bill to finally be legislated.

Over the next decade, the conversation around women’s basic sexual and reproductive rights proved divisive and contentious, most especially during debates between the coalition of reproductive health advocates and the Catholic Church — an era described as a time of “bitter public controversy and political wrangling.” In the end, it was the fiery women who filled the plenary halls of Congress for over 14 years that shaped a new Philippines, one that now embraces bodily autonomy and sexual education for a new generation of women.

When the pandemic hit, our country’s population growth rate saw its lowest numbers in 75 years at 0.3 percent. Rep. Edcel C. Lagman from The Manila Times wrote that it was the RH Law, “which [have] greatly supported and realized the choice of couples during the pandemic to postpone having children or not have additional children”, that played the most crucial role in preventing unplanned and high-risk pregnancies.

For and founded by women

With the RH Law reaching its ten-year mark this year, there have been initiatives in the private sector to move the conversation of women’s sexual and reproductive health beyond the niche and transactional into the personal, even strategically fun and engaging. As a design studio, we are curious about exploring the possibilities of brand identity and marketing to further promote advocacy, awareness, and empowerment. In our explorations, we discovered that there are countless creative means to serve one mission.

Brands like Kindred and Anna, for example, are sister companies that have brought holistic care closer to middle-class and upper-middle-class women. They have been providing an entire array of services from reproductive health and mental health consultations, screening, pap smears, contraception to fertility care. With most of the population in lockdown, women were less inclined to schedule in-person doctor’s appointments or visit their nearby health centers for consultations and tests. Such practical limitations became impediments to accessing necessary and immediate healthcare services, reproductive and beyond.

Both brands sought to fill that gap and more. Co-founder and CEO Jessica de Mesa said, “The fact that we’re able to provide holistic care under one roof really provides an excellent patient experience and helps end the fragmentation that currently exists in women’s healthcare in the Philippines.” By establishing a safe, judgment-free space for care and treatment, they help any woman “understand her options and guide her through every step.

On the other hand, recent years brought the emergence of brands that cater to women’s needs beyond the traditional definitions of care. Unprude, for example, is the first stage-sensitive sex store founded by renowned sexologist Dr. Rica Cruz, which aims to help women identify their specific sexual stage through guided self-discovery and expert-curated products. Dr. Cruz said, “We want women to define their sexual selves on their own terms… Unprude [also] understands that sex is a journey and through this journey, we all go through different stages. We must be aware and mindful of these differences if we want to be truly healthy and unashamed about our sexual selves.”

Following the wide success and support for sustainable menstrual brands like Nala Woman and Sinaya Cup, Alexa Jocom launched the period care brand Halia in late 2021. Just like its predecessors, Halia situates women’s empowerment as inseparable from other advocacies, creating products that tackle not only injustices and taboo topics around women’s health, but also the environment. Jocom told us that “people [are] demanding better products from brands with more body and planet-safe ingredients or materials” and that “they are more willing to learn about and support what is good for themselves and the environment.”

Designing out of the taboo

“The female body has long been misunderstood,” de Mesa of Kindred and Anna discussed. “Women spend their entire lives adjusting to and understanding their bodies. The stigma and taboos [around women’s health] remain pervasive which has serious negative consequences and can put lives at risk.” When women are not aware of the way their bodies work, they are not able to recognize changes that might indicate a problem and get the necessary help they need. What change is normal or abnormal? What advice is helpful or harmful? To be able to discern what’s best for them is a life-saving ability, for themselves and for the women around them. Hence, the project of normalizing, demystifying, and debunking women’s sexual and reproductive health is not only a matter of principle but of fundamental care.

What these brands have in common is a relatable, approachable, and non-judgmental persona — important qualities to embody if you want to establish a warm and trusted relationship with women.

The visuals that accompany these brands are bright and spirited, with an abundance of vivid and natural colors (shades of pink, green, purple, orange, and cream), while sprinkled occasionally with voluptuous dancing women (in the case of Halia) and bold, amorphous shapes (in the case of Kindred). You will also find photos of women of all sizes being unabashedly themselves, lounging in their underwear or half-naked in queen-size beds, content in their own state of being. And then there are your run-of-the-mill memes, loads of them.

There is also an emphasis on radical authenticity and openness by creating a supportive and frictionless space that doesn’t shy away from difficult but necessary conversations while helping women find solutions, acceptance, or both. Their content ranges from more practical and informative posts like how to do breast self-examinations, things to know about HPV, and what your period color means to more sensitive and intimate topics like ways to self-pleasure, a round-up of common STIs and STDs, and dealing with mood swings. In all cases, these brands believe in using the veracity of scientifically proven, doctor-backed information for awareness and engagement.

For Kindred and Anna, it’s all about simple and fact-based storytelling; to spark conversation, and deliver engaging, educational, and informative content. While Dr. Cruz of Unprude shared a more grounded perspective, “When it comes to sex, it’s so easy for marketing to become gimmicky and lewd. Instead, we focused on its importance in relationships – whether it’s a relationship with yourself, or with your partner.”

She wants to emphasize a more personalized experience that welcomes women in different stages of their sexual journeys, “mindful that this shift doesn’t force women to respond in any specific way but rather respond in their own way. That they do not feel pressured to be more ‘open’ or ‘transparent’ or ‘unashamed,’ the same way that women shouldn’t feel pressured to be more ‘reserved’ or ‘modest.’” As a brand, Unprude stays away from being too promotional but instead provides guidance by incorporating language from Cruz’s own practice as a sex therapist.

On the other hand, Jocom of Halia believes in being “attention-worthy and relatable” as a means of capturing the attention of a younger audience first, which they’ve seen has had the potential to spark the interest of older women by association. “We have people from younger generations asking their moms more about menstrual health, which helps shift the conversation… They tell their moms what kind of period products work for them, what do not, and what they would like to try,” she recalled. As a sustainable brand, they opted for vibrant, unapologetic colors to subvert the muted and mellow colors of similar sustainable brands. “We want to speak to our community in a way that is playful, lighthearted, and authentic like your best friend on speed dial,” she further explained.

What can be gleaned from this is the proposition that radical acts not only come in the form of relentless lobbying, though without legislation much of the progress in women’s sexual and reproductive health would be all for naught. A bill’s journey from Congress can be long and labyrinthine: enacted, subsequently questioned and contested, and then declared constitutional over a span of 14 years much like the RH Law, but even then the consciousness of a generation often has yet to follow suit.

Such is the case now in our country where initiatives by different brands are still addressing gaps in the market and the silence in wider conversations. But if there’s one thing that these brands can convince us of is that from here on out, a positive wave, a new consciousness is gaining momentum, which has helped free women from the injury of deeply-ingrained taboos. While a lot of women might still find it intimidating to participate in open discussions, these brands are paving the way and leading by example. They embody themselves as your sister and guide for whom no topic is off-limits and too much for their liking, designed with bold, dynamic shapes and the most welcoming of hues as if to say, there is nothing to be ashamed of.