PERIOD founder Nadya Okamoto on period poverty, the tampon tax, and how current political circumstances have changed the course of her work.
By Hadassah Penn.
Periods can be painful, disruptive, and debilitating—and that’s with the menstrual products required to deal with them. Enter Nayda Okamoto, who is raising awareness and implementing real change regarding menstrual inequality, period poverty and more with her organization PERIOD. “I founded PERIOD when I was 16 years old as a junior in high school, after my family experienced living without a home of our own for several months,” she says. “During this time, on my commute to school on the public bus, I had many conversations with homeless women in much worse living situations than I was in.” Okamoto describes “an anthology of stories” that she heard about homeless hygiene methods, which included “toilet paper, socks, brown paper grocery bags, cardboard, and more.”
Okamoto is in her early twenties now, and PERIOD’s reach and impact has grown with her. Okamoto is a Harvard student, the Chief Brand Officer at JUV Consulting, and, in 2017, made history as the youngest Asian American to run for public office in the United States. With more than 800 chapters across 50 states and 40 countries, PERIOD has served over one million periods and remains devoted to its tripartite mission of “service, education, and advocacy.”
“A huge barrier we’ve faced is the stigma surrounding periods because it impedes open conversation about menstruation,” says Okamoto. “People with periods are taught that their natural body process is something to feel shame about and that they should conceal them when the reality is that they are part of our body’s natural process.”
She says that’s where education comes in: “We need more opportunities to highlight and amplify this work, to eliminate the unfair stigma and demand real change towards menstrual equity.” Okamoto even published a book on the subject: Period Power, a Manifesto for the Menstrual Movement, which includes chapters like “The Bloody Truth,” “Menstruation in the Media,” and “Take Action.”
But beyond menstrual inequality and period poverty, PERIOD also aims to combat the outdated idea that “women” = “menstruation,” a thought process that excludes many men, women, and gender-nonconforming people. “Not all women menstruate and not all menstruators are women,” says Okamoto. “When working to destigmatize menstruation, we must ensure that no one is left out, discriminated against, or marginalized. Menstruation is a biological function, not just a ‘women’s issue.’”
In the same vein, PERIOD advocates for the repeal of the tampon tax, which classifies menstrual hygiene products as luxury items instead of the necessities they are, whilst Rogaine and Viagra are classed as essential and henceforth untaxed. “When I started this work, 40 states still had the tampon tax, and now we are down to 30,” says Okamoto. “I’m incredibly proud of my team and am focused on making sure we keep scaling our service distribution and taking down the tampon tax.”
Recently, though, PERIOD has shifted focus to address pressing current events: the COVID-19 crisis and the Black Lives Matter movement. “PERIOD HQ’s major focus right now is serving the marginalized communities that are being hit the hardest by this global crisis,” reads a statement on the organization’s home page. Accordingly, PERIOD is sending menstrual hygiene supplies to non-profit establishments (food pantries, shelters) who request them. After all, “PERIODS DON’T STOP FOR PANDEMICS”- in the words of one of PERIOD’s Instagram posts.
As for Black Lives Matter, PERIOD posted several statements on social media, pledging solidarity with the movement and the protestors. “Among our shipments this week, we are sending menstrual products to Black Lives Matter organizers in New York, activists in Minneapolis/St. Paul, and to our dedicated service partners in Los Angeles…Together we can support and educate one another in the fight for justice and equality,” reads one declaration.
“It is my fundamental belief that it is a human right to discover and reach one’s full potential, regardless of a natural need,” says Okamoto. “And what could be more natural than the biological needs that our reproductive health poses for us?” she asks,. “I’m fighting for menstrual equity because menstrual hygiene isn’t a luxury, it is a right.”
Photos courtesy of Nayda Okamoto.