'This is a human issue.' Portland woman breaks period stigma, goes global with nonprofit

Period The Menstrual Movement is a non-profit, started by a young Portland woman, that’s trying to break the stigma around menstruation. Photo courtesy Nadya Okamoto

Period The Menstrual Movement is a non-profit, started by a young Portland woman, that’s trying to break the stigma around menstruation.

Nadya Okamoto started the organization four years ago, when she was just 16 years old. She was in school at Catlin Gabel.

Since she was a teen, the non-profit’s grown significantly. There are now chapters of the organization internationally.

On Thursday, Okamoto helped put on Period’s inaugural "State of the Period."

“State of the Period, it’s sort of a play off of State of the Union, right?” Okamoto explained.

It is basically an educational party for periods, to stand up for the menstruation movement. A part of it is about breaking the ice around a topic so many people shy away from. To help with that, Margaret Cho, the comedian, is headlining.

“We can stand up and declare that the menstrual movement is a thing,” Okamoto added. “And it’s something that we can issue an agenda and we can talk about once a year and say, ‘Here’s what we’re going to be focusing on for the next year.’”

Okamoto founded Period after realizing what local homeless women were using to keep clean during their time of the month.

"Like toilet paper and socks and brown paper grocery bags and cardboard,” Okamoto explained.

She started by collecting feminine products for that small group of women. It grew faster and larger than she ever anticipated.

"The next week was 40 and then 100 and now in the last 3 1/2 years we’ve addressed over 350,000 periods through product distribution," Okamoto said.

It has turned into a powerful, boundary-pushing, global organization trying to break the stigma. It is working to ensure women, especially young women in schools, have access to free period products. It's also attempting to eliminate the so-called tampon tax.

The tampon tax, also known as the luxury tax, is sales tax. What’s is upsetting to Period is that period products, like tampons and sanitary napkins are not exempt to the tax, even though prescriptions, like Viagra, in most states, are.

"It’s ridiculous and completely outdated,” Okamoto said.

Okamoto has only lived two decades, but she has a long list of titles, thanks to her determined, passionate attitude. Not only is she the founder and executive director of Period, but also, she’s a student at Harvard. This organization means so much to her, though, that she’s putting Harvard on hold, for now.

"Last semester at school I was barely at school. I was like flying in for exams, and like trying to do my homework, but I think my heart is in this,” Okamoto explained.

Okamoto is also an author. She’s in the process of finishing her first book.

“I wrote this book called Period Power a Manifesto for the Menstrual Movement,” Okamoto said, then explained part of what it is about. “This is what the menstrual movement is, how do you talk about periods? Why does the stigma exist?”

It’s Okamoto’s most sensitive title, rape survivor, that’s keeps her motivated, though.

“I am more than my experiences,” Okamoto said.

She said, starting Period, when she was just 16 years old, saved her life.

"I was coming out of a really abusive relationship where sexual assault was a regular thing in my life, and I was sort of also coming to terms with the fact that I grew up with sex abuse and my family,” Okamoto said.

The young woman, who once felt voiceless and powerless, who questioned her self-worth, found meaning.

"For the first time felt like I have something to offer the world,” Okamoto said.

Okamoto is now grabbing the attention of major players in the feminine care industry. Huge brands like Tampax, Always and Thinx are coming together to support her cause. Those big names and others will all be at the second annual Period Con in New York City in December.

Thinx is also in Portland for the State of the Period event. One of the new company's vice presidents says Period and Thinx are in the works for something big.

"It's going to be really exciting, working directly with Period to empower young activists toward menstrual equity and free and easy access to menstrual care products in school,” CJ Frogozo, Thinx vice president of press relations, said.

Thinx said the big news will come out September 25. You can learn more about the period-proof panty company here and on Instagram @SheTHINX. You can also follow Period on Instagram @PeriodMovement.

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