Here’s the plot of a commercial for a menstruation product: two female students are sitting in class when one passes her friend a Tampax.
But the students get caught and are asked to show the whole class what they are passing around.
Holding the tampon, the male teacher quips: “Well I hope you brought enough for everyone.”
Feminie hygiene products would be a weird thing to bring for the entire class — but the teacher had been fooled by Tampax’s discreet and colorful packaging. He assumed he’s holding a piece of candy.
“Enough for the girls,” the student retorts.
It’s played for a laugh at the clueless teacher — and boys — in the class, but there’s a darker message here: menstruation is something that needs to be hidden, or it could bring you shame.
The commercial is from 2005.
Treating periods as something to be ashamed of is an international problem that has persisted for centuries.
Citing worries that women are “unclean” during this time, more conservative cultures may force a girl into isolation for the duration of her menstruation. But more liberal societies have typically been slow to normalize menstruation, too: it’s why you see blue liquid on commercials for period products instead of blood red and it’s why there’s a higher tax on period products.
It’s a problem that 23-year-old entrepreneur and social media influencer Nadya Okamoto has been fighting for years to fix. She founded a nonprofit focused on fighting menstruation stigma as a teenager, wrote a book on the menstrual movement, and gives talks at events like The Makers Conference.
Her most recent salvo: a period product company she co-founded called August, that aims to normalize the discussion around menstruation.
Reimagining Menstruation Care
August sells the products you’d expect — tampons, pads, liners — but with some important differences.
A quick look at their packaging speaks to the larger issues at August’s heart. Achingly hip and aesthetically bold, everything about the company’s image — from the blood-drop cursor on their webpage to the recognition of the diversity of people who menstruate — is geared towards tearing down stigma.
“Period products in the past have been something that you hide in your shopping cart because you don’t want people to see it, and you awkwardly check out,” Okamoto says.
That extends to the company’s social media messaging, which Okamoto was able to grow organically — the startup’s social media following is larger than that of the industry heavyweight Tampax. Using direct language and meeting gen Zers where they congregate (mostly TikToke and Instagram), Okamoto is using August to help change the conversation around menstruation.
Okamoto’s heard from customers who have expressed relief in finding a community where they can talk about their period, after having been ashamed of them for much of their life.
To help battle period poverty, August donates menstruation care products to underserved schools for every purchase. The startup also helps set up programs for students to have free access to period supplies.
August also has a question page on its website, where a panel of medical professionals answer questions about menstruation that people may be too embarrassed or scared to ask — like if using a tampon can “break” the hymen, which can have severe consequences in cultures that place an emphasis on virginity.
In addition to changing cultural conversations, August also puts an emphasis on changing how period products are made, with a focus on sustainability. Typical pads and tampons can take 500 to 800 years to decompose; in comparison, August’s products and packaging are designed to break down in less than a year. (The applicators are made of recyclable plastic, although the goal is to move to a plant-based, biodegradable version.)
The pads and liners are made from 100% cotton that is vetted to ensure it is not the product of forced or child labor, and shipped to help reduce its carbon footprint.
The Human Rights of Humans Who Menstruate
Okamoto has been challenging not just the established players in the period industry, but the larger cultural perceptions that those companies adhere to and sometimes perpetuate.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the international organization’s sexual and reproductive health agency, lays out in no uncertain terms that cultural perceptions around periods can impact the human rights of people who menstruate.
“Gender inequality, extreme poverty, humanitarian crises and harmful traditions can all turn menstruation into a time of deprivation and stigma, which can undermine their enjoyment of fundamental human rights,” UNFPA says. “This is true for women and girls, as well as for transgender men and nonbinary persons who menstruate.”
In some cultures, periods can be considered unclean, shameful, or a portent of bad luck.
This can lead to exclusions from everyday life, including religious spaces and the home, or restrictions on handling food. Taken together, it creates an environment where people who menstruate do not have the same rights in public spaces as others, making it more challenging to participate in public life.
That participation can also be threatened by period poverty. People menstruating in some developing nations who lack access to period products may be forced to use unsanitary materials like paper, fabric, or leaves.
“I personally had instances when the only means to manage my menstrual cycle was to use old clothes or tissue because my family couldn’t afford to purchase menstrual products,” Grace Clarke, an assistant researcher at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia who grew up in Liberia, told the hospital’s Policy Lab.
This can lead to health complications or missing out on education and employment opportunities.
The challenge is so big that sometimes Okamoto wonders if she can make a difference.
“My conclusion is that I believe that we can,” she says. “And I believe that the only way we can is by showing up unapologetically and trying to do so.”
We’d love to hear from you! If you have a comment about this article or if you have a tip for a future Freethink story, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.