To commemorate the arrival of my first-ever period, I sobbed unabashedly in my piano teacher’s bathroom. “Congratulations!” my mother yelled into the phone, in between my heaving inhales, “You’re a woman!” I didn't want to be a woman, though. I was still thoroughly enjoying being a girl.
Beyond the looming prospect of monthly discomfort, at the time, I felt something I can only identify now as shame. I had anxiety dreams about tampons the size of large mammals. I didn’t tell my friends. I didn’t ask questions.
All the well-intentioned teeny-bopper period-care manuals I had access to seemed to avoid the word “period” altogether. Instead it was “time of the month” or “flow” or, most egregiously, “the rag.” The girls in my classes had dexterous, unassuming ways of sliding tampons from their bags into their jacket sleeves or the waistbands of their jeans. We were all in on a collective secret.
While I can’t say with certainty how present-day middle-school girls go about wielding their tampons, the scope of the conversation has shifted as a whole since my own first cycle. We’re becoming more transparent — more public about the nature of our periods. We’re celebrating and bemoaning our bodies out in the open. And we owe that freedom, in part, to women fighting on the front lines to destigmatize menstruation. Call them “menstrual activists.”
Along with working to remove period stigma, these women are taking on another major issue: period poverty. A recent study suggests that in 2018, one in four women struggled to purchase menstrual hygiene products due to insufficient income. Worldwide, menstruation is among the leading causes of school absenteeism in girls. And still, we have yet to combat period poverty with the urgency we might otherwise apply to a medical crisis.
For a better look at how we can all commit to updating menstrual vernacular and closing the period poverty gap, we sat down with three wildly inspiring female activists. Ahead, read how they’re changing the conversation around period health. They might just be the folks who convince you, from here on out, to brandish your tampons with pride while you march to the office bathroom.
When Nadya Okamoto turned 16, her family was displaced. No longer able to pay for their home, they moved in with family friends in Old Portland, Oregon. En route to school each morning, Nadya changed buses at a thoroughfare lined with nearly 10 different homeless shelters, all situated within a radius of just a few blocks.
“I overheard a lot each time I passed through, but I remember hearing homeless women talk about using things like toilet paper, socks, brown paper bags, and cotton balls in place of tampons when they had their periods,” she explains. “At the time, I’d been thinking so much about privilege as a spectrum. I did all this research about the tampon tax and girls missing school because of their periods, and I got so worked up.”
In an effort to capitalize on that fervor, Nadya founded PERIOD — a global, youth-run NGO devoted to reducing period stigma and period poverty. On a policy level, the organization works to slash taxes on menstrual hygiene products, while on the ground, it aims to set up PERIOD chapters across the country where locals operate drives to collect supplies that will later be stocked in school bathrooms and other public spaces. Right now, there are over 350 registered chapters across the country.
In the organization's early stages, the nuances of running a nonprofit were foreign territory for Nadya, even for all her clarity on its mission. “We were Googling things like what is an NGO and what’s a 499. It was super challenging and confusing,” she says.
Five years later, beyond the impressive quantity of functional chapters, the organization now operates with its own full-time staff. Nadya has released her first book, Period Power: A Manifesto for the Menstrual Movement, and after one unsuccessful — though valiant — attempt at running for office in Cambridge, Massachusetts, she’s prepared to put all of her energy into expanding the limits of her organization’s reach.
“Think about how you can break the stigma. Start conversations and collect products where they’re needed,” she says. “Each of us as individuals has a responsibility to break the stigma in our own communities. I wish I could tell everyone just how easy it is — to start conversations, be more open, be more confident.”
In 2004, Joanne Goldblum started a diaper bank in her living room. By 2011, she was running the National Diaper Bank Network — an organization centered around providing clean diapers to impoverished parents and children. Now, it operates as the largest diaper bank network in the country.
As Joanne continued to work with families in need of diapers, she found that the majority of the women she met also lacked access to things like tampons, soap, and toothpaste. “These things are necessities, not luxuries,” she declares. There are no state or federal subsidies for most of these products, and they’re often treated, from an institutional end, as extraneous. So, Joanne set out to do something about that.
“I became a little bit obsessed with finding a way to meet people’s basic needs,” she explains. “I remember joking that I would start a tampon bank one day, but I didn’t think anyone would fund me.” That was 15 years ago — long before the Alliance for Period Supplies came to be, with Joanne as its founder and CEO, and U by Kotex as its founding sponsor.
“A big focus of the program is allying with local programs and helping them distribute period products in their communities,” Joanne says. “U by Kotex has donated 17 million period products to date with the help of retail partners and consumer support.” In its second year, the APS and U by Kotex continue to raise awareness about the prevalence of period poverty — while inspiring individuals to take action within their own communities.
Beyond collecting and distributing supplies, the APS — like Okamoto’s PERIOD — is also working to combat taxes on menstrual hygiene products from a policy level. “The sales tax is a regressive tax,” says Joanne. “But working on the policy level gets me really excited. It makes me feel like we’re really going to make change — starting at the institutional level means we can make permanent change.”
And naturally, tied in with all of the above, comes the battle to destigmatize menstruation — the push to overturn the scorn that accompanies a woman’s period. Joanne says that one of the most empowering parts of her work in the feminine care field is the specific variety of satisfaction that comes from merely broadening the conversation — from speaking candidly with as much frequency as possible on the topic of menstruation in the hopes that it will encourage others to do the same.
“We’re never going to get period supplies to everyone,” she says. “We have to understand that. But we can say that that’s okay, because we’re helping as many people as we can — and more importantly, because we’re changing the conversation. We’re talking about [our periods] at the places where we work. With our friends. That’s activism.”
You might recognize Kiran Gandhi’s name. Perhaps it's for her illustrious career as Madame Gandhi — a touring drummer, performing with big-name artists across the country. Or maybe you’ve heard her solo tracks. It’s also possible that you spotted her in headlines across the globe when she chose to run the London marathon in 2015 while “free bleeding” — traversing all 26 miles on foot while on her period, sans menstrual hygiene products.
Following the race, Kiran was inundated with criticism. She was declared “unladylike” and “vulgar” — even “disgusting.” But equal in number were the headlines exalting her as an icon of female liberation. “I made the decision to free bleed because it was most comfortable for my body,” she says. “Sure, I went into it with this punk-rock mentality, but really, I just didn’t think anyone had the right to police my body.”
After the marathon, inspired by the onslaught of responses to her run, she began to look for more information about menstrual health and period stigma as a whole. “I reached out to a lot of folks who I knew had been involved in the menstrual health and activism space,” she says. “I leaned on them to educate me about the cause. I became an expert by proxy.”
As a musician, Kiran began to use her stage as a platform to spread awareness and reduce stigma relating to the subject of menstrual care. “My activism and my musical career really come together,” she explains. “I only started producing and performing my own music after the London marathon thing went viral. People started asking me to speak, so I would come and talk, then I would perform my own music as well. Until then I’d only been drumming for other people.”
Once she began to speak out in public forums about the importance of eradicating period stigma, she found herself entrenched in a vocabulary that excited her. Soon after, lyrics born of the same sentiment came naturally — and thus, a solo career was born.
Her next album will be released this coming October, and within it, you’ll find a line that speaks almost directly to the nature of her menstrual activism: “With my own voice I’ll say it when fate gets in the way/no matter what phase of my moon I’m on that day.”
While Kiran travels the globe, performing and speaking out on matters of gender equality and menstrual pride, she still feels somewhat reluctant — even intimidated — by the prospect of addressing a crowd. “For a while, it was so hard to get on stage and say words like ‘pussy’ or ‘free bleeding’ or even ‘period’ in front of so many people,” she says. “In high school, even at an all-girls school, we would maybe tell each other if someone had a stain, but we weren’t talking about our periods.”
Still, apprehension aside, Kiran takes pride in doing that very thing in front of expansive throngs of spectators. She’s championing that reluctance to speak frankly about period health, and she’s wielding it as a form of activism.
“Two years ago I performed at this big music festival in Denmark. It was packed, I crowd-surfed, I played music, and I spoke openly about menstrual issues and female empowerment,” she says. “After the show, one woman came up to me at the merch stand and said, ‘I’ve been holding off on running for Danish parliament, but after hearing you speak, this is going to be my year.’
“She reached out to me about four months ago. Turns out she got elected.”