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Nadya Okamoto’s new book, Period Power, encourages advocacy for a very normal bodily function.

Nadya Okamoto is not afraid to talk about periods. In fact, she is so adamant that other people not be afraid to talk about them that she named her not-for-profit organization PERIOD, in all capital letters.

She launched it in 2014 when she was 16 years old; its mission is to provide period products for those in need, advocate for the repeal of sales tax on tampons and pads (the so-called “tampon tax”), and educate people about menstruation. There are 230 local high school and college chapters, and the organization has donated more than 380,000 “period packs” to people who cannot afford products. Tampax, Kotex, DivaCup, and several other companies work with PERIOD to organize donations.

Most states have sales tax, and the majority exempt people from having to pay tax on some “medically necessary” products like toilet paper and even dandruff shampoo. Tampons, pads, and other products people need for their periods historically have not been included in these exemptions, so people are essentially taxed anywhere from about 4 to 9 percent for them, depending on the state. This is, of course, in addition to the price of the products themselves, which can cost anywhere from $5 to $20 per box.

Considering that many women menstruate from the ages of about 12 to 50, that adds up. The fight against the “tampon tax” has been escalating for the past several years, and several countries, including Australia and India, have recently repealed theirs. But it still exists in 36 states in the US, according to Okamoto.

Okamoto, now 20, first got interested in so-called “period activism” after experiencing a stint of family financial struggle and homelessness when she was a teen. This launched her career in advocacy and an interest in decreasing the stigma that still exists when talking about women and periods. Since then, she has been accepted to Harvard and even ran for city council at 19 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to tackle gentrification and income inequality in the area. (She lost her election.)

And now Okamoto has released a book for teens and young adults: Period Power: A Manifesto for the Menstrual Movement. The book is meant to educate young women about their bodies and hopefully fire them up to be activists themselves.

I spoke to Okamoto about paying more for having periods, decreasing stigma, and starting an advocacy movement for young people.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Cheryl Wischhover

How did you get so interested in periods?

Nadya Okamoto

When I was 16, my family was experiencing living without a home of our own. During that time, my commute to school was about two hours long. And where I would change buses, there were 10 homeless shelters in a two-block radius. It was through conversations [with women there] that I started to collect this anthology of their stories of using toilet paper, socks, brown paper grocery bags, and cardboard to take care of their periods. I just got really upset by it. It was a really big privilege check to me. As a 16-year-old, it was easy to fall into feeling really sorry for what we were going through. But I never had to use trash to take care of something like that.

I was really fascinated when I learned periods are the No. 1 reason girls miss school in developing countries, and the single thing that leads to them dropping out of school and getting married early. And in the US, period-related pain is the leading cause of absenteeism, more than the common cold.

Cheryl Wischhover

Have you yourself ever experienced that or know someone who has?

Nadya Okamoto

I’ve met a lot of girls who have encountered hardship and not been able to go to school because of their period, but I have never myself dealt with that. When I was 12, on my first cycle, my mom had me start using a menstrual cup, so I always had a reusable product even in times when money was tight. I think a big part of the reason I wanted to push our work more in schools was because I was getting messages on Instagram and meeting girls on my speaking tour who would tell me that when they got their period, they oftentimes had to stay home either due to a lack of period products or because of the period pain.

Cheryl Wischhover

Do you think menstrual cups [a reusable, washable product that is inserted into the vagina] are a good option? It seems like they’re still niche.

Nadya Okamoto

Anyone who knows me knows I’m an avid menstrual cup fan. I devote many pages in my book to my love for menstrual cups! I think the reason people get scared of them is because of the insertion aspect. You look at it and it’s not a small object — it’s kind of daunting. But one of the programs PERIOD has is called Cup & Cloth, which is all about hosting workshops on education about reusable products and why they can be better for the earth, better for your bank account, and better for your body.

Cheryl Wischhover

Tell me about a specific initiative that you’re working on now with a city or organization. I’d love to hear about some of your projects.

Nadya Okamoto

So to do all of the work, like service and then creating social and systemic change, we mobilize young people. Our star chapter is at Grant High School in Portland, Oregon. They just convinced Portland Public Schools to make a $25,000 investment to provide period products in all high school bathrooms in Portland public schools. Another example is in Fort Worth, Texas. One of our regional directors passed policy with a school board to get period products in all high school restrooms there.

Cheryl Wischhover

Have you received any active pushback or dealt with municipalities who aren’t willing to engage with you or hear you out?

Nadya Okamoto

We have maybe passed four pieces of legislation in the last year, and that’s been a lot of constant work. We get pushback every day about why we care about this, how it’s too expensive, how we have more important things like school supplies to worry about, that the tampon tax is just too entrenched. We get that every day.

Oftentimes, people will tell us it’s not a necessity, like this is something that shouldn’t be prioritized over other social issues like hunger. The biggest thing is us really needing to convince people that this is a necessity and not a luxury. I know it sounds simple to people who believe in gender equality, but it’s easier said than done.

Cheryl Wischhover

Do you find you’re having to explain this to a lot of men in government?

Nadya Okamoto

Oh, for sure. You can build a cohort of people who support you, but at the end of the day, oftentimes in municipalities and state governments, the person who’s in the highest seat of power — and the eventual person who makes the decision — is a man.

Cheryl Wischhover

What is the most ridiculous question or argument you’ve gotten on this issue?

Nadya Okamoto

The question that I get shockingly a lot is, “But how many people does this really impact?” This happens all the time. The big thing in California that we’re going up against is that if you repeal the tampon tax, you increase the tax on alcohol. The restaurant and alcohol businesses have rallied to not pass repealing the tampon tax. I’ve talked to quite a few legislators who will look at me and be like, “Well, if we tax alcohol more, it will make a lot of people upset, and at the end of the day, how much do period products actually affect people?”

Cheryl Wischhover

How much money is involved in repealing the sales tax?

Nadya Okamoto

California is at least $20 million, and that was almost two years ago, so it’s probably more now. We also have a petition going in Ohio [around $4 million].

A lot of pushback we get, especially from men, is not understanding how many people menstruate. My big thing is that anyone assigned female at birth will likely menstruate for 40 years of their life on a monthly basis. The thing I also always bring up is, “You are here because your mom menstruated. Your wife menstruated, and because of that you have these three kids, and you have two daughters who are going to be menstruating. And right now the government you’re backing is reinforcing the idea that they don’t deserve to feel clean, competent, and capable on their periods.”

Cheryl Wischhover

Is there an element of privilege there, of people just assuming everyone can afford the products?

Nadya Okamoto

I think it comes from a place of privilege. I recognized it in myself. The reason I became so passionate about periods so quickly is that I realized in my three years of menstruating, I had never thought about what it would be like to not [be able to] afford period products. Because periods are so stigmatized, we don’t go up to each other and say, “What’s your menstruation experience?” So I think because of that, even if they’re woke or care about equity, because we don’t talk about periods and don’t think about other people’s menstruating experiences, it’s not something you’re thinking about.

Cheryl Wischhover

I read recently that you are taking a break from Harvard. Was it hard to make that decision?

Nadya Okamoto

It was definitely hard to make the decision because I’ve always been super committed to school and an overachiever. But honestly, it was also an easy decision because whenever I had free time, I never wanted to do school work. I was reading the news and getting angry about what was happening in the world, and I was doing this PERIOD work and loving every second of it. I was preparing for my first book to come out, and I really wanted to travel more and do speaking engagements. But also I ran for office last year. It just really consumed every part of my life. I was feeling really ready to take time to be away from school.

Cheryl Wischhover

Who do you hope most reads your book, and what has the feedback been like so far?

Nadya Okamoto

I really hope that girls age 12 to maybe late 20s read the book. Because I really want this book to change the way people think about their own periods and use their own experiences to fight against period poverty. I was terrified for it to come out, because I have a very bad case of impostor syndrome at all times. But what I love is that a lot of young girls who have read it told me that this is the book they’ve been waiting for. Because they feel really ashamed about their period all the time, and then as soon as they read this book, they realize how natural it is. They don’t want to stop talking about it and they’re ready to talk about it.

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Author: Cheryl Wischhover


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