Half the world’s population menstruates at some point, yet we’re still made to feel ashamed about it. The bleeding, the bloating, the cramps, the sore breasts — society has chosen to suppress discussion of what those assigned female at birth go through on a monthly basis. It explains why menstrual products are still taxed as luxury goods and why the companies that sell them have long wanted to convince people that the shedding of the uterine lining comes out in the form of translucent blue liquid.
But Nadya Okamoto, Harvard-graduated author of "Period Power" and co-founder of the non-profit organization PERIOD.org, has made it her life's mission to change that. And she’s using her platform on TikTok to connect with younger audiences and destigmatize menstruation one controversial video at a time.
The Period Stigma
“Period stigma is rooted in the etymology of the language we use to talk about periods and bodies,” Okamoto explains to NextShark. “All the way back to how periods show up in the oldest religious texts like the Bible — which frames menstruation as punishment and something to be shameful of from the very beginning of the Old Testament in Genesis. Even in 2021, people are still using euphemisms such as ‘Aunt Flow’ and ‘that time of the month’ to refer to their periods, which perpetuates the taboo.”
In Asian societies especially, Okamoto believes there’s “even more silencing and shaming surrounding menstruation.”
“Growing up, I felt a strong cultural disconnect due to the racial discrimination and bullying I endured throughout school. However, even though I was rather disconnected in my experience with my grandparents who are immigrants from Japan and China, it was very clear that periods and mental health are taboo topics,” she says, adding that she’ll often find resistance from Asian people when talking about it online.
Fighting Period Poverty
Having been raised by a single mom in a household with two younger sisters meant that talking about periods was never a source of discomfort for Okamoto while growing up. In 2014, she learned about period poverty by having these conversations with homeless women, who explained how they were unable to afford menstrual products.
After listening to these stories, Okamoto embarked on a journey to end period poverty by starting the non-profit PERIOD.org.
“I had never heard of period poverty before, but learning about that and the fact that the tampon tax existed in 40 states at the time ignited a fire in me — I knew I had to take action,” she says. “I think a lot of my advocacy and work has been fueled by my personal experiences — because that’s just who I am, and my ambition comes from a place of deep personal pain and passion.”
In 2020, she founded and became CEO of August, a company that prides itself on providing period products made from sustainable materials. She has made it the company’s mission to combat period poverty by donating menstrual products to schools and partnering with non-profit organizations.
Combating period poverty and normalizing periods go hand in hand as Okamoto explains.
“This starts with talking freely about periods as the natural and powerful thing that it is! Periods are powerful — yet society teaches us to feel ashamed and silences us when talking about menstruation. We should be conscious of this and stop this mentality! We fundamentally need to get all of society — menstruator or not — to acknowledge/act on that menstrual products are NECESSITIES — and everyone should have equitable access to them.”
Institutions can play their part in normalizing periods by providing period products for free. “This is already happening in states like California and Oregon, with legislation that makes period products free and accessible in schools,” she says.
Empowering the Next Generation
On TikTok, a social media platform popular among Gen Z'ers, Okamoto regularly uploads videos that promote her line of August period products and advance her mission.
She’ll often show on camera her used menstrual products with the goal of normalizing female bodily functions and educating her audience on menstruation. These videos tend to elicit polarizing responses, with some finding comfort in the way periods are finally being discussed openly and others claiming that periods are “gross.”
“People say that this is a private thing and I should be embarrassed to post about it so publicly,” Okamoto says. “However, I think it’s important to actually engage with the people who push back. We need to have these conversations.”
@nadyaokamotoReply to @thatwhitealgerian ##greenscreenvideo @itsaugustco liners are sooo absorbent and ##biodegradable ##sustainable ##onmyperiod ##periodtips♬ ...Ready For It? - Taylor Swift
As an Asian American woman, Okamoto says that her advocacy work is met with an “added layer of people stereotyping [her] as “quiet and submissive.”
“I’m not that at all, and I even take it to the extreme when posting my period blood publicly and talking so openly about trauma,” she says. “But I think that’s the responsibility I have, as an AAPI person with a platform. Through my work, I want to encourage my AAPI siblings, as well as other marginalized communities, to embrace their experiences and identities and to take action on matters they are passionate about.”
And to those that stand in her way, she shares one final message: “We need to talk about periods openly and not be disgusted and ashamed of such a natural, human function. Periods literally make human life possible — you’re literally here because menstruation exists!”
Featured Image via Nadya Okamoto
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