Meet Harvard’s ‘Period Girl,’ a College Freshman Who’s Changing the Conversation About Menstruation

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Nadya Okamoto at L’Oréal Paris Women of Worth Celebration 2016, in New York.Photo: Brian Ach/Getty Images for L'Oreal

When Portland native Nadya Okamoto was a freshman in high school, her mom lost her job and the family lost their home. “We were legally homeless, living with our closest friends,” Okamoto, now 18, remembers.

On her way to school, Okamoto waited for the bus near a homeless shelter and became friends with the women who lived there. “I would regularly talk to them about their life stories and their experiences, and I started to ask what they found most challenging,” she told the Cut. “Their answer was often menstrual hygiene.”

At the shelters, the women rarely had access to pads and tampons, and instead improvised with toilet paper, foam pillowcases, and brown-paper grocery bags. “They would tell me about the discomfort that they had or the type of infections and skin irritations that they would get from using those sorts of trash to maintain menstrual hygiene,” Okamoto says.

A few months later, Okamoto’s family moved back into a permanent home, and she launched Camions of Care, a nonprofit that delivers care packages of tampons and pads to women in need around the world.

“In the last two years, we have addressed over 31,000 periods through over 40 nonprofits and 23 states and 13 countries, and we now have about 60 campus chapters at universities and high schools around the United States and abroad,” Okamoto says proudly. This comes at a time when more attention is being paid to the politics of periods. Last summer, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a New York City law making free menstrual products available in schools, shelters, and jails. This fall, Brown University students got free pads and tampons in all restrooms. Thinx’s revolutionary period underwear is flying off shelves; companies like Lola are disrupting the market with chemical-free tampons; and President Obama publicly acknowledged that tampon taxes, which tax menstrual products as luxury items, were probably crafted by men.

Now a first-year at Harvard, Okamoto — who is known around Cambridge as the “period girl” — is fully committed to the menstrual-equality movement. The Cut spoke with Okamoto about her personal passion for menstrual hygiene, why it is critical to get these products to women in developing nations, and her plans to take the free-to-bleed cause to the next level and push for systemic policy change.

What makes you really passionate about this issue?
I see it as the baseline. We’re seeing a huge surge in efforts to create educational opportunities for women and girls around the world, especially in developing countries. But women can’t take full advantage of these because they have their period and they don’t have access to clean bathrooms or clean water to maintain hygiene. And menstrual hygiene is so stigmatized. In Nepal, you are not allowed to be active, you have to be confined to a small shelter away from your community. No matter how many opportunities we create for female empowerment, it can’t be taken full advantage of unless we address menstrual hygiene.

What stands in the way of people getting menstrual products? The expense?
Definitely the price of it, because products are very expensive, but I also think it’s the stigma. I think the stigma plays a huge part in not making it very acceptable. Although it’s a natural need, it’s not often acknowledged as that. When people think of needing hygiene products for the homeless you think of donating toothpaste or shampoo and conditioner or razors or gender-neutral products that all homeless people could use. People don’t often think of donating tampons and pads and panty liners.

What were you surprised to learn?
We were asking, Why don’t you provide menstrual-hygiene products? And we quite commonly got the answer that it was because they didn’t see a need. We were hearing directly from the women that they needed the products. We finally figured out that most of the women we talked to said they weren’t comfortable telling people they were on their periods, and they were scared to go to an authority of a homeless organization and say, I’m on my period and I don’t have anything to address it with.

What was the biggest challenge in this organization off the ground?
The biggest challenge is fundraising, and it still is the biggest challenge. I was asking people to give me money because I wanted to start a nonprofit as a 16-year-old. And even now, I’m a college freshman and I am asking for big bucks. Our operation, we are addressing at least 3,000 periods a month, which means we need at least $3,000 a month.

Do tampon taxes impact this?
Yes, absolutely. Things like the tampon tax make it less accessible because it’s upping the price. I really have an issue with the tampon tax, not only because of price, but also because of the general message it sends — that menstrual hygiene is a luxury. It’s not a luxury, it’s a natural necessity, and that is what our org stands for, our org stands for saying menstruation is not a burden, it’s something that can be beautiful and should be celebrated because it means your body is working and growing. Menstrual hygiene, and maintaining menstrual hygiene, is not a luxury but a necessity, so that you aren’t feeling dirty and self-conscious 25 percent of your month.

You are at the front of this “menstrual movement.” How do you understand that movement and what is driving it?
A general passion and recognition that it’s time to make this stride on behalf of gender equality. It really is a huge obstacle to global development because it’s holding back more than half our population. By making sure that every single person in our population feels fully able to participate 100 percent of the time, regardless of a natural need — we say the menstrual movement is our push to make menstrual hygiene and menstruation a more open topic, and menstruation something that is recognized as beautiful and celebrated, rather than looked at and maybe felt with shame and self-consciousness and feelings of wanting to hide.

What do you think of the movements on college campuses, like Brown or NYU, where students have pushed for menstrual products to be free?
I absolutely support it. Being a broke college student, that is reality. And spending $5 to $10 a month to maintain menstrual hygiene can be a significant cost, and that is where I really support those movements. One, it’s empowering you; two, it’s saying that regardless of a natural need, 100 percent of the campus, whether or not they are menstruating, should be able to participate and have these products so they feel ready to participate, really reach up, and discover their full potential.

I read that when you showed up at Harvard you were seen as the “period girl.” What was that like?
Oh, yeah. When I got to college, people would say, You are the one who does things with vaginas or the one with women’s needs, but they wouldn’t say periods or menstruation or tampons, and then finally I started telling them, Yes, yes, I’m the one who does things with periods. Just say the word, it’s not a bad word. It kind of translated to my friends being like, You are period girl. Then I started posting more on social media, saying, “Come on, lets say the word period,” and people started coming up to me and saying, Oh, you are the girl who does the thing with periods. I really saw that shift, and it has been really amazing.

Why are people so afraid of using that language?
I have actually found that sometimes guys are more able to talk about it than girls, because it’s often seen as something that is dirty or private. In health class, they usually split up boys and girls then talk about their periods. Even in that very basic action, you learn it’s something you only talk about with other girls, or you keep very private to yourself.

Recently, at the L’Oréal Women of Worth awards, you said that you were planning to take this movement to the next level. What is that going to look like?
We are changing the name of our organization to “Period.” It’s no longer going to be Camions of Care, because no one knows what a camion is — I made up the word. We are getting people to talk about menstrual hygiene and we are breaking the stigma, simply with our name. We are also going to start pushing for systemic change around menstrual hygiene. We created a comprehensive policy toolkit that has everything from communication materials, talking points to the actual action steps to connect youth activists to legislators, to push policies that make menstrual hygiene more accessible and more available, whether that be around the tampon tax or with government-assistance programs. We are still figuring out the details, but we are trying to enter the realm of policy change and engage the youth voice in making long-term difference.