Welcome to our new In Her Shoes series, in partnership with the iconic Australian footwear brand Wittner. This exciting new series gives us the rare opportunity to step into the lives of the women who inspire us and discover the strength, courage and ingenuity that has got them to where they are today...
To kick the series off, we’re stepping into the shoes of the Young Australian of The Year 2021 Isobel Marshall and her business partner Eloise Hall. Together, they founded TABOO – a brand of menstrual health products that uses 100% of its profits to fund sanitary care and education programs.
It was back in August 2019, Isobel and Eloise threw a party. Over 400 people turned up to celebrate with the then 20-year-olds, and some of them were strangers. But these weren’t unwelcome gatecrashers. They were some of the supporters of the crowdfunding campaign Isobel and Eloise had launched, raising $56,000 in two months, to launch their social enterprise designed to end period poverty. “That was very exciting, the moment we realised people weren’t there because of us anymore”, Eloise says.
While their brand is called TABOO, there’s not much that’s off-limits in our conversation. In fact, ending shame and secrecy over menstruation is at the heart of TABOO’s mission. And it starts, Isobel says, with education. “As opposed to teaching you how to hide your period, or how to do it discreetly, [it’s about] teaching how to actually manage your physical and mental health through your period or your menstrual cycle. Changing the tone from an embarrassed, shame ridden experience to a celebrated and positive one, it changes the way that the students respond, and respond to themselves on their period.”
So how did a gap year turn into a social enterprise? According to Isobel, the pair weren’t satisfied with the fact that half of the population is “disproportionately disadvantaged because of their anatomy.” Well versed in calling on their community to get behind a cause – the girls had seen this in action via their own families and their school – the pair felt that crowdfunding offered an advantage beyond securing the startup cash they needed. “If everyone gives $10, $15, some give $1,000, some give $2”, Isobel tells us, “not only did that mean we were financially looked after, it also meant that these people had a sense of responsibility and personal investment in the business”.
And although their business model meant they wouldn’t be able to offer a return on investment in the traditional sense, Eloise says they weren’t phased by this. Seeing the difference TABOO is making in the world, she feels, is a reward in itself. “This is return enough for us because we know that it’s an important cause.”
Here, we ask the TABOO co-founders about how they’re tackling period poverty, what making real change looks like, and building a brand from the ground up. We also get a peek at the new Spring/Summer Wittner collection.
Isobel wears Wittner Yvonne wedge in Daffodil, $210, due September. Eloise wears Wittner Zella flat sandal in White, $170.
What are your favourite kind of shoes to wear?
Isobel: Sneakers! I’ll wear them with absolutely everything. I love how you can dress them up and down. I tend to run everywhere because I’m chronically late to things – so flats very much suit my lifestyle!
Eloise: Sandals! In an ideal world, I wouldn’t need to wear shoes at all so a comfy pair of sandals would be my go-to. I’m a pretty tall person so heels only come out for very special occasions!
Let’s go back to school – what kind of students were you?
Eloise: We were always coming up with ideas together. We were never short of trying to solve problems, but starting a business was probably not on the horizon. I was always coming up with quirky ideas such as starting a dog breeding company with my friend Lily. You dream about what your future could look like. At the end of high school, passion took over and we became so excited and driven about this concept of Taboo, we parked any other ideas we had about what our lives would look like for a while and just gave it a crack.
Isobel: We quickly learned that we really loved getting the school community together working towards a mission, whether that be through fundraising events, campaigns…we were forever coming up with these ideas and then forcing everyone to do it alongside us. The school community always really fostered that. We tried everything – volleyball, water polo, trombone, pole vault, chess. I think we learned to really give anything a go through that process. There was no fear of failure, even though we failed at different things. Like butterfly at the swimming carnival!
Do think the fact that you have differing skillsets is useful in the business? Do you take on naturally different roles within it?
Eloise: Definitely. As time has progressed, especially as we’ve focused on our separate degrees, studying very different things – Isobel is a medical student and I’m doing business and international relations – that has naturally transitioned into separating our skills even more so. Early, probably the first year of Taboo, we very much did the same things. And even then it was obvious that we needed to diversify our focus, and it’s not only more productive, but it feels more natural having your separate work to do.
Launching a business while finishing school is quite a challenge in and of itself. When did you actually work on Taboo? When did you find the time and how did you navigate that while trying to deal with the school workload as well?
Eloise: We came up with the idea at the start of year 12, and then we completed year 12 without putting much thought to the company. We knew that it was an issue that we wanted to address. And we were excited that we had the means to do that through the sale of a product, but it’s not something we specifically invested time into, until October of our final year of school.
Just before exams really snuck in, we started chatting with one or two mentors, just to see if it was something that we could pursue after school. And we entered our first competition, which we won. That was really the first glimpse of hope we had that it would work, and people were excited about it, people that weren’t really in our sphere of life.
It became apparent that it would be our future, or at least some part of our future, at the end of year 12. And it was the following year that we really invested more time and energy into it, so it was a lot easier to manage amongst jobs and travelling.
Isobel wears Wittner Roxanne heel in Lagoona, $220.
“ We had to raise $48,000 in two months, or we wouldn't receive any of the donations ”
Was it something you were able to work on, on the side?
Isobel: We did have to structure it quite consciously, because a year can go really quickly. We said this is our gap year, but we filled every day with either doing something or learning something towards Taboo. And then at the end of that year, it became apparent that we needed to raise some money to pay for our first batch of Taboo branded product, if we wanted to actually kick this thing off the ground.
We hosted a crowd funding campaign for two months over that Christmas, between our gap year and our first year of uni. And that was a big hustle, because we had to raise $48,000 in that two months, or we wouldn’t receive any of the donations. That’s just how the platform that we used worked. And so that was stressful, but very exciting. And we ended up raising $56,000.
What happened once you've received those funds, given that you'd never actually run a business before? Did you just have to learn it on the fly?
Eloise: Yes, we freaked out quite a bit!
Isobel: We’d only personally had a couple of hundred dollars at the time, so it’s a huge difference.
Eloise: And that’s when we thought, well, everyone else’s money is in our hands now, to do what we said we were going to do. The pressure was on to get it done. And it was a good amount of pressure. It’s what we asked for, and it was what we wanted.
Isobel: Over that time, we learned a lot of our business activity would surround advocacy, promoting our cause, as opposed to just selling the product, even though that’s obviously our main game, and the vehicle we have to actually create funds, and then make practical difference. But there’s a whole lot of school presentations, and social media, all of that community driven activity. And that’s all about specifically challenging the stigma and opening up conversations about menstruation, which is very necessary to addressing period poverty.
Social media has its real positives and also its major drawbacks. As young women, how did you navigate using social media for brand building?
E: We started our Instagram page the first year of Taboo, and we didn’t have product for another three years. We were talking about when you discover a band, and then the band gets really popular, and then you feel really proud that you knew the band before they were on mainstream radio. And that’s why we started so early, because we thought we want people to feel a part of the journey and feel connected to what we’re doing in that sense, and feel proud when other people discover what the brand is. It was a really good move in hindsight, because we had those conversations started from a young age in terms of the business. And by the time we had products to sell, and we were meeting with retailers, the retailers already knew the story. And so half the work was done, and we just had the product part of convincing to do. It was really useful.
Isobel: Our personal Instagrams, they certainly weren’t our priority.
Eloise: They’re still not.
Isobel: Instagram is set up to create an echo chamber of exactly what you want to hear. And I think a really important part is diversifying the voices that you hear on Instagram, just so you can get more perspectives. I know that when we were at school, you’re following all of your friends, and we went to a private girls school. Suddenly your whole feed is full of just pics of people out for drinks and nice clothes, and you’re in this atmosphere and community of a very specific demographic. And I think as young people grow up, and they’re still deciding who they are, and what they stand for, it’s very important to follow the people you haven’t heard from much, or the figures that can inspire you as well as just give you a good ideas for outfits. It’s all about learning more on the platform, and consciously trying to broaden your perspectives, that Instagram feeds you.
“ We learned a lot of our business activity would surround advocacy, promoting our cause, as opposed to just selling the product ”
I want to know what the stigma around menstruation was, within your school or within your peer group?
Eloise: I think the conversation around menstruation was definitely more liberal in the school than it would have been in perhaps a co-ed school, just because there wasn’t anyone without the experience. Everyone could relate, people were quite confident to share their experience, which was really helpful. If you were to leak onto your dress, no one would really care that much. And you’re not going to be the victim of bullying, just because you’ve let it be known that you’re bleeding. It wasn’t that stigmatised.
Isobel: We’ve learned over time that that is definitely not the experience of a lot of people. And so when we’re targeting our messaging, or wording things for our Instagram posts or presentations, we really need to consider that that’s not the experience for everyone.
There was certainly a lack of formal education around periods. In our friendship groups, we all got each other through it, and we taught each other things, and that’s how a lot of friendship groups work, which is powerful in itself. But there’s something to be said for teachers and formal teaching programs instilling a real sense of confidence, and pride, and respect around periods.
Even small things – as opposed to teaching you how to hide your period, or how to do it discreetly, teaching how to actually manage your physical and mental health through your period or your menstrual cycle. Changing the tone from an embarrassed, shame ridden experience to a celebrated and positive one, it changes the way that the students respond, and respond to themselves on their period.
Isobel wears Wittner Raychie heel in Kermit, $220.
Eloise wears Wittner Raven heel in Electric Magenta, $190. Isobel wears Wittner Asamara flat slide in Tan $170, due October.
In the UK they've abolished tax on sanitary items, which is great. Part of the rollout is free access to pads and tampons in schools, universities, and hospitals. We don't have a tax here in Australia on sanitary products, but what changes would you like to see here?
Eloise: We’re definitely excited to be involved in conversations specifically around girls in school. We know that unfortunately in Australia period poverty is something that girls experience, and they are missing out on school because of their period. And that’s often down to the price of products, being too expensive for their homes.
And also the lack of education. That’s really fueled by the stigma, because when it’s a conversation that’s not happening, these girls aren’t telling their guardians or their carers what they need, and where they’re lacking in support. So we’re really excited for education departments, and school leaders, to really question how they are supporting their students.
Isobel: And the announcements from different states around Australia about the provision of free sanitary products is very, very exciting. We’re really keen to see it roll out in a really efficient and sustainable way that prioritises education, and the start of conversations between students and teachers, boys and girls alike, and they definitely need to be focused on education. The free access of product in the bathrooms doesn’t mean that those conversations are negated or avoided.
You mentioned period poverty. In Sierra Leone, girls miss around 50 school days every year due to their periods, and 65% of women in Kenya can't afford sanitary products. So what exactly does period poverty mean and how does it impact girls and women?
Eloise: Period poverty is a title attached to the experience of someone who can’t access sanitary products and menstrual period products, and doesn’t have the access to appropriate education about managing their cycle. This often has implications to a girl or a woman’s life, whether that be school or work or social experiences. It’s something that needs to be seriously addressed, it’s not a peripheral issue, it’s a central issue that needs to be tackled with a lot of thought, and funding, because it affects half the population quite significantly.
There are reports, even recently there’s one done by the Commissioner for Children and Young People in South Australia, Helen Connolly. It suggests that one in four girls were missing some element of school because of their period. It does have a ripple effect into the opportunities a girl may have in her life. And the conversation about the impact of menstruation needs to be had in a serious way, rather than the assumption that people can manage their own cycles without a lot of guidance, because it’s just not true.
Isobel: And as well, learning pathologies that manifest in really excruciating period pains and other symptoms that are quite debilitating and disruptive to normal life, that’s getting more airtime – things like endometriosis. Obviously the awareness is fantastic in putting pressure on more research, more understanding, and hopefully preventions and cures. But also, just the validation that some women’s period pain is not just perceived as really bad because they’ve got a low threshold for pain, but it’s actually serious pain. And it affects their social community life, school, and employment. Things like that need to be really supported. That’s one in nine women in Australia. That’s a huge proportion of women, that are disproportionately disadvantaged because of their anatomy. There’s more awareness in that area, which is super encouraging, but that does need to translate to financial support and research.
“ “One in four girls were missing some element of school because of their period” - Eloise Hall ”
What did it feel like when you launched and you realised that this was something people were actually going to get behind, and it was going to happen?
Eloise: When we wrapped up the funding, that was quite beautiful, we just said, “Oh my gosh, we’ve done it.” And then we freaked out that there was all this money that we were in responsible for! But in August, 2019, after the crowdfunding campaign where we launched our product, we had a big party and we had 400 people rock up. And there were so many people there that we had never met. We didn’t recognise their faces. And yet they had decided to spend however much money the tickets were to come and celebrate the product, like who comes to a party that celebrates period products? These great people did. And we just celebrated with these strangers, because it wasn’t about us, we had this platform now of a product and a mission that was for everyone.
Isobel: That was very exciting, the moment we realised people weren’t there because of us anymore. When you drag your friends and your family, and then you saturate all of your close contacts with incessant messaging about a particular cause, and that had filtered through to a wider community at that stage. And then the product was absolutely flying on its own two feet which was super exciting because it wasn’t just the product, it was the mission all wrapped up in that product.
There is so much shame around periods, and it's something that needs to end. Why do you think that there is that shame?
Eloise: The shame of menstruation is so different in around the world. It looks very different depending on the cultural, religious, and spiritual influences that that community has had. But the common factor is that it’s not generally celebrated in any country around the world. And stigma is present in some way or another. It’s really interesting to see the intricacies of how the stigma has developed, but it’s definitely not developed out of the celebration of periods existing to reproduce and bring life to the planet.
Isobel: And that speaks to the importance of education. Things did get better once people understood why periods exist. They certainly haven’t gotten better to state that we’re satisfied with, but at least there was an understanding of why it existed, and it wasn’t entwined with a lot of theories about periods being a curse, which is in some areas still a present assumption of the reason periods exists.