Self-Taught: Nadya Okamoto
You have all heard the classic female tale. Whether bleeding through your khaki uniform pants and your mom telling you, “You’re a woman now,” losing your virginity in the back of an old pick-up truck at summer camp, or becoming a mother after a seamless pregnancy and having your perfectly round-headed and healthy baby placed on your ready-to-breastfeed chest, you know these movie quality stories to be wildly uncommon. You instead, as resilient you are, guide yourself through the untold truth of femininity.
You throw away 100 tampons before knowing how to use one. You lose your virginity on a messy, confusing, and imperfect night and you experience birth in a deeply personal and courageous way that likely completely deviated from your best-laid birth plan. Yet, you, as a powerful and resourceful force of nature, figure it out. You talk to your friends, converse with the Google Search Bar, and overcome the unknown.
In Self-Taught, we discuss how women teach themselves about their bodies—because we’ve all been failed by school courses, perplexed by movie scenes, and embarrassed by conversations with parents and peers.
For far too long, flawed systems and unrealistic media have depicted the female body—the female experience—as too skinny, too fat, too messy or neat, disgusting or pristine, but rarely the truth that lies between every extreme. In Self-Taught, we’ll share stories of how women uncovered flaws in systems, products, and lore, and taught themselves that there is a better way—and they deserve better.
As an author, entrepreneur, and powerful Gen Z influencer, Nadya Okamoto started her first NGO, PERIOD, by the time she was 16. The organization has assisted in making over 560,000 periods just a little bit more comfortable for women who would not otherwise have access to period care. Not only has she taught herself about her period, but also thousands of others, making her a leading force for a powerful young generation.
Can you describe what your first period looked like along with the support system you had and the products you were offered? Did you feel the tools you were given were safe and helpful?
I wrote an article about my first period for Teen Vogue! My mom was very supportive of me and helped teach and prepare me for what a period was. That being said, it was still a very scary experience at first. I was lucky to have a menstrual cup early on, so I didn’t have to worry about how we would afford period products, even when we were experiencing housing instability.
Were you ever given the “period talk?” If so, by whom? How did it go? How did it make you feel? Given your circumstances, was it helpful?
My mom was very open and supportive of me. She gave me the opportunity to ask questions and feel like my period was part of growing up. I was still impacted by period stigma though and it was something I whispered about until I started PERIOD.
You started PERIOD when you were only 16 to help homeless women gain access to period products. And in your teenage years, you discovered a very obvious need to help women who disclosed to you that they were using unsafe products to manage their periods. What are some of the biggest challenges you faced while starting PERIOD?
Starting an organization focused on periods was definitely difficult. I was met with a lot of giggles and skepticism and I still am. This is why education and advocacy are so important in the menstrual movement. However, at the same time, that sort of pushback was motivating for me because it showed me that we still have so much work to do, and my mission to destigmatize periods was needed. We have to break the stigma and teach people about why menstrual equity is so important.
When you started PERIOD, what were your expectations for what it would become?
I really just wanted to help menstruators in worse situations than my own and make sure that they had easy access to the products that they needed. I had no idea that it would grow into what it is now or that I would be taking time off from Harvard to pursue this work.
Not only are you an entrepreneur, but you’re now and author of the book Period Power: A Manifesto for the Menstrual Movement. Why did you feel it was important to expand the mission of PERIOD into a book?
I wanted to write a book to show that this movement is real and has a larger vision for social and systemic change—we have an agenda and real information and thoughts behind our mission.
Period Power aims to explain what menstruation is, discuss the stigmas and resulting biases, and create a strategy to end the silence and prompt conversation about periods. It covers everything from what is happening biologically, to historical information about period products and the political environment around menstruation.
Things are changing. Conversations surrounding the tampon tax, period poverty, and menstrual equity are no longer taboo. The next generation can and will change the silence and status quo around menstruation and gender equality. My book is a call to action for today’s youth to become tomorrow’s change-makers.
You have clearly made a tremendous impact in tackling period poverty. What do you think is the most important step we should be taking to conquer the issue?
We have to start a conversation and break the stigma! Start talking about periods as natural things. Have discussions about periods. The best way to help and get involved in the menstrual movement is to talk about periods. Have the book out and in the open; talk about how period products should be a necessity. Tell people that period products should be free and readily accessible in all restrooms. They should be treated just like toilet paper and paper towels in terms of access. I think that the next big goal to achieve menstrual equity is to pass period policy around it—starting with taking down the tampon tax in the remaining 35 states that still have it.
You were just named as one of InStyle Magazine’s “Badass 50: Meet The Women Who Are Changing The World” list, along with Ariana Grande, Michelle Obama, and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. Congratulations! What do you feel you and those women have most in common?
Honestly, I think it’s that we all live and work passionately. I am doing what I love and what I truly believe in that builds my ambition as I pursue this work.
What is the one thing you wish your younger self knew about your period?
Use menstrual cups and cloth pads and tell all of your friends to!