Menstruation is having a moment. It’s not that it hasn’t been around since… well, forever, but it’s more present than ever in advertisements, everyday conversation, and the media (even beyond our femme-first R29 sphere). But though the rhetoric has advanced, encompassing intersecting issues of tax policy, gender, public health, and even fashion, the action to achieve menstrual equity — wherein everyone with a uterus can participate equally and fully in society without undue burden — is only beginning.
In this episode of See Here Now, a documentary web series that I produce, film, and host, I ask a simple question: Is access to menstrual hygiene a social justice issue?
To find an answer, I picked up a camera and followed Chelsea VonChaz. She rerouted her career path two years ago to start #HappyPeriod, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization that collects donations of menstrual hygiene products and directly connects folks experiencing homelessness with tampons, pads, panty liners, and other products.
Watch the video above for the big picture on menstrual equity, and read my conversation with Chelsea below to get a deeper look into the specifics of grassroots period activism.
This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
When you're doing these donation drives or talking to people about #HappyPeriod, how do you weave in all of these interconnected parts of menstrual equity?
"I can't really answer that question, because I really don't."
You don’t? Okay. Why not?
"I'm into the homeless people. I focus on them first. We can worry about the folks who literally have nothing, and then we can worry about everybody else who can clearly afford to purchase whatever."
"That is the focus, and everything else just kind of comes second. Because, yeah, I want to remove the [“tampon tax”] overall. That would be great if women's prisons, women's shelters, and schools would have everything they need for free. That would be awesome. But I know that takes work. And it takes people coming together. I'm on board with that. I'm all for menstrual equity, period. I'm just about really doing the shit that I can fix faster."
Having worked on this for the past two years, what are the main pieces of this problem that you've sought to fix?
"First thing is spreading awareness about the lack of access [to menstrual hygiene] and the lack of donations of these products. There is a huge lack of people donating these type of products. Within the mission of how we do what we do and why we do it, it's always about eliminating or breaking the whole taboo surrounding it, so that people will be more comfortable donating menstrual products and also be more comfortable talking about them. Folks are more comfortable talking about cancer and terrorism than they are talking about periods. I think that is so backwards. I mean, they're very important things, but I'm just talking about the comfortability of folks when it comes to something that everybody is connected to and something that everybody experiences. For thousands and thousands of years we've had this one thing that is the reason why we're all freaking here, and we're just uncomfortable talking about it. We don't even want to bring it up."
People are even more comfortable talking about poop than periods.
"Right! Exactly. That is ridiculous."
You know that children's book Everybody Poops? Like, what if there was one that was that was called Everybody Bleeds?
"All the Mommies Bleed. Something. I don't know. It's ridiculous. Let's break the stigma. There are too many people out in the world — even in your own neighborhood — that go without this basic need."
What have you seen [in Los Angeles] on Skid Row or Venice Beach specifically? What are conversations that you've had with women on the street about their day-to-day experience of accessing tampons or running water?
"People tell me that no one gives them pads and tampons. Nobody really cares for their needs as far as their menstrual health, or their menstrual care. They find it surprising that there is a #HappyPeriod organization out there, or that there's someone who makes sure that they have pads and tampons … They will find someone who is going to give them water or socks or blankets or food. That's regular. But to make sure they have pads and tampons, they're always kind of shocked and surprised by that and grateful, too.
"I've heard crazy stuff [about] mistreatment. You know the survival tactics that they have to go through if they're a woman living on the street, you know, like, trying to smell bad or kind of being relieved that they have their period."
Oh my gosh. Yeah.
"That was a way that they more than likely would not be raped or sexually assaulted, or no one would want to bother them, because they would show that they're bleeding or that they have their period. And that's a survival tactic, unfortunately. I actually talked to a few people who admit that they are addicts. They have been refused pads and tampons from shelters, because they're not in a program, or because they're not a resident of the shelter or whatever."
So there can be red tape that makes it even harder for people to get connected with this stuff.
"Yes, exactly. And there's not really a huge number of places that they could go to clean themselves up really quick, such as a public restroom or bathroom."
When you were starting #HappyPeriod and gathering these donations, were there any companies in particular who were really generous to you?
"Yes. In the beginning people really encouraged me to get connected with Kotex or Tampax, you know these big companies. So I did that, I tried, but THINX was the first company that ever replied. They participated in a #HappyPeriod volunteer event in New York City. They came and participated and donated and they delivered products, too, and they were the first company to ever do that. We were still in our process of becoming a 501(c)(3) organization. And then there's been a few other companies, like healthy hoohoo. Yes, that is the real name of a company, and it's the coolest shit. There's Kali Boxes. There's been a couple other organizations. Maxim Hygiene. They're female-led start ups that donate the products they make."
One thing some critics have asked is, why tampons and pads versus menstrual cups. How do you respond to that?
"I post about this on our Instagram all the time. People…see that we have pads, tampons, soap, underwear, and panty liners inside of the #HappyPeriod kits, and they ask, 'Can't you just give them menstrual cups? It's more affordable. It'll last longer. It's better for the environment.' It's like, okay, someone's fucking homeless, they can give two shits about the environment, right? They are in the environment more than you are, so they're not going to worry about more than they have to worry about.
"More than likely they just do not have access to running water, period. So how the hell are they going to use a menstrual cup when they can't even brush their teeth as often as they would like to? The way the menstrual cup is inserted, your hands have to be clean. So [if I give someone a menstrual cup], I’m putting this person at more of a risk of infections. It's totally different than a cotton-based tampon. And for someone who has any type of mental illness and is not stable, of course they could forget that they have a menstrual cup in their vagina. So that's a really huge risk. I've heard from shelter representatives, like, that has definitely happened, and it happens all the time. Just like how we hear stories about people who are not homeless and who do not have a mental illness who leave tampons in longer than they should. #HappyPeriod still donates menstrual cups to individuals who ask for them. It does happen, but it's rare. I don't like a menstrual cup either, me personally. So I'm definitely not going to tell someone, 'Oh, you should try this, it's better for the environment.'"
It's always sort of rich to me that people who have, you know, income and access to running water would criticize other people for not wanting to use menstrual cups, when they don't even want to use menstrual cups themselves. I don't know, I love a menstrual cup.
"We put a variety of products in our kit, because it's about, like, this is your choice, these are the options, you pick what's best for you."
For other people who want to do something to make a positive change, what advice would you give them? What should they do?
"The first thing I would say is that the change has to start with you. Whatever you're moved to do, just do it. If you're moved to go and buy an extra box of tampons or pads whenever you buy one for yourself, cool. Buy an extra box and donate. If you converted on to reusables, like menstrual cups, and you have all these disposable products in your cabinet, you could ship them to #HappyPeriod, or you can drop them off at your local shelter. Or ask them what do they need. Do they need this? What could you do to help? That's where those conversations should start."