Why inclusive design should drive change for women of all ages

Words by Rachel Darivoff
Date 2023-05-23

Inclusivity and inclusive design are driving change from people to products to policy—and that’s a good thing. It’s empowering in the most literal sense. An overused word for certain—but in this case, there isn’t a better one. These innovations help people thrive in ways they couldn’t before, solving very real and often overlooked issues. Issues which have traditionally been ignored because they’re inherently uncomfortable to address.

Issues that women are all too familiar with—taught from a young age to use every euphemism in the book from “Aunt Flo” to “the change” to avoid embarrassment about their bodies.

But today, we see a transformed reality.

Inclusive design has ushered in the next wave of female empowerment. Courtesy of companies like Lola and Thinx in period care, Inito and Luce in fertility and Willow and Elvie in breastfeeding, inclusive design innovations have finally destroyed the woeful days of “pink it and shrink it.” The days when blue liquid was used in place of period blood are over (while we're on the subject, why are women still being taxed for a necessity like period products?!), but let’s not forget that it took a lawsuit for female sexuality to finally be accepted by the MTA. In driving innovation and taking action, these brands have drastically destigmatized female reproductive health—making it not only an acceptable part of the cultural conversation, but a dominant force. Yes. Yes. Yes.

I’m here for all of it. And happy that somehow, these issues are somewhat “safe” now—somewhat comfortable-ish.

But, as it turns out, the revolution of female sexuality and reproductive health that we’ve been celebrating doesn’t include all women.

The next frontier of inclusive design will be about invisible issues, which are often intersectional ones as well. Older women, who carry the baggage not only of women’s issues but also the stigma of aging and the shifts in ability that come with age—those who feel “invisible in advertising”—are all but uncatered to as consumers.

Only very recently have we seen a slight shift. Menopause is starting to seed into the cultural conversation—and as the New York Times remarked, “the menopause gold rush” may very well be upon us.

With the spending power of the over 50-set in the U.S. alone expected to grow from $45 trillion to a whopping $118 trillion by 2050, according to AARP, and the number of menopausal women worldwide estimated to reach 1.1 billion by 2025—it’s easy to see why. But also, who can afford to ignore them, or their spending power? And dare I ask: Who would want to?!

And herein is where it gets really interesting. Because even when we witness the conversation, it’s singular. Too often, menopausal women are seen as past their sexual sell-by date—past their prime by the time they’ve hit 40. Meaning that while there’s emergent chatter about their plight, it’s never about their pleasure. Symptoms, not sex.

This tension is exemplified by recent entrants to the menopause market—the aisle itself is invisible anywhere but online. While they might have a lube in their line-up, these brands center around “the change”—not the gains. It’s made up of mostly DTC celebrity-backed supplements like Stripes and Wile or Rx startups like Bonafide, Evernow, or Alloy—all promising “relief” and “solutions.”

Already loaded baggage around the female physique is burdened with even more shame when it comes to ageing. We see this perfectly articulated in the movie Book Club, where Candice Bergen’s character exclaims, “If women our age were meant to have sex, God wouldn't do what he does to our bodies.”

And yet, with movies like Book Club (with a sequel out now), Hollywood started to show us something different. Then Grace and Frankie’s “Menage a Moi” made headlines and got people talking. And since then, we’ve been told that baby boomers have the best time in bed. That sex gets better with age. The NYT waxed lyrical about the joys (and challenges) of sex over 70.

The opportunity to tackle the taboo is right in front of us—the chance to drive lasting change. Hollywood might have started the conversation but it’s up to brands to drive it forward, moving from talk to action.

We’ve seen the power of brands to make the invisible, visible. By innovating on the status quo and creating truly people-centric products and services, brands bring attention to issues which rarely (if ever) receive investment, in turn solving real problems.

In these spaces, there’s often little competition. First mover brands are the ones that get noticed and the ones that change people’s lives for the better. It’s a win-win situation.

We know that breaking down the barriers that hold people back is a big ask for any brands. It also asks brands to break through their own barriers. But the shock and awe of a taboo, once tackled, wears off. Then we’re left with what pushes us forward. Left with meaningful conversations that drive meaningful actions.

As we approach this next frontier of inclusivity, there’s an opportunity to demonstrate real brand allyship—now. Everyone is competing for eyes and dollars and if you can create real value and impact, that’s reason enough.

First published in Muse by Clio.