Pelvic floor problems affect most women at some point in their lives - figures have found that a third of women will suffer, most commonly post-birth or as they approach the menopause. And with incontinence being one of the main side effects, and sadly one of the most stigmatised, TV presenter Carol Smillie has decided to do something about it - by creating a range of protective underwear to tackle the fear of embarrassment. "Women leak for all sorts of reasons - it could be heavy periods, endometriosis, crohns and colitis, it could be post maternity or perimenopausal flooding - there are loads of reasons why we can experience leaks, and none of them are our fault," she says.
Carol Smillie has spoken frankly about the pelvic floor issues many women experience
The pelvic floor is a supportive sling of muscles supporting the pelvic organs - your pelvic floor muscles are the ones that contract when you cough, sneeze or laugh, and help you go to the toilet. A common consequence of a weakened pelvic floor is incontinence, and even the term itself is damaging, according to Carol. "I think perhaps previous generations have been taught not to discuss things like this - it's been considered shameful in the past. The language around pelvic floor issues can be distressing, too. I know what 'stress incontinence' is, but if you say that to the average woman, it conjures up an image of someone elderly, or perhaps 'losing it' a little - and that's really sad."
So what is stress incontinence? "Stress incontinence happens when you put your body under 'stress' - for example going for a run, jumping on a trampoline, laughing hard, coughing or sneezing," says Carol. "Say the word 'trampoline' to any woman who's had a baby and the fear in their eyes is evident!" she laughs.
TV presenter Carol Smillie
"There's not enough education about it," she continues. "I always say, 'look, before you get yourself in a tizz, there's probably at least two other women within shouting distance of you that are in the same position!' It can be sorted - go and see your GP about fixing it and not letting it cripple your life."
Carol's underwear range, Pretty Clever Pants, is for 'preventing life's little leaks,' as the presenter puts it. "We've got a secret waterproof panel which runs from the front waistband to the back, which means you can stand up from a table or walk out of meeting and not worry that there's a mark on the back of your skirt, dress, clothes whatever," she says.
Seeing the need for an underwear product that looked pretty put also protected from leaks, the brand was originally launched as a period product inspired by Carol's two daughters - who would worry about going to sleepovers during their time of the month. Since then, it's evolved to target women who are experiencing pelvic floor issues.
Carol's underwear range has been a lifesaver for women that suffer stress incontinence
"I've had an incredible response to it," she says. "There have been some heartbreaking stories from women who've been traumatised from their experiences - some women can't speak because they're so upset about it. I've spoken at conferences and women have come forward with their bladder issues - and it's cripplingly embarrassing for them. I thought periods were taboo, but I suppose at least if you're having periods you're deemed to be young. Whereas when it's a bladder issue it's very much seen, unfortunately, as an 'elderly' thing."
"Humour is often the way to deal with it for a lot of women. They're more comfortable with that," she continues. "And it's never too late to start pelvic floor exercises. For the vast majority of women the problem is fixable."