Active Voice

Nadya Okamoto on Erasing Stigma and Finding Balance

The full-time Harvard student, founder, and published author had to learn things the hard way while working to uproot the taboos around women discussing their periods

Nadya Okamoto has no problem talking about her period. Growing up in a household with a single mom and two sisters kept the floor open for all things menstruation. At age 16, during morning commutes to school, she would chat with homeless women who first introduced her to period poverty, a global issue affecting women and girls who don’t have access to sanitary products.

After researching the crisis more, Okamoto realized she had yet to hear about the issue because of the stigma surrounding menstrual cycles. It’s not widely known that 40 U.S. states tax tampon sales. Recognizing her privilege as a woman with access to hygienic and safe period products, Okamoto launched PERIOD, an organization fighting to end period poverty and stigma. But her advocacy didn’t end there. In 2018, she released her debut book, Period Power: A Manifesto for the Menstrual Movement, and two years later co-founded August, a community-centered lifestyle brand working to reimagine periods.

Despite being a full-time student at Harvard, Okamoto hasn’t slowed down in her activism. Between speaking engagements and organizing an online community of individuals who engage in thought-provoking conversations about periods, Okamoto doesn’t believe in focusing on just one goal at a time—or even finishing school before entering the workforce. The 23-year-old describes herself as a multihyphenate: Her side hustles don’t have to be put on pause for her day job or college studies.

I chatted with Okamoto to learn more about the ins and outs of organizing in a niche space with a large impact.

Brianna Holt: What does being an activist in this space mean to you?

Nadya Okamoto: To be honest, I have never identified as an activist. I would define activism as just pushing against the status quo. You don’t have to be working at it full-time to call yourself an activist or organizer. Even working at really incredible values-based companies like Patagonia is a form of activism. I know there’s a lot of debate around even this conversation, around “What is activism? What makes you an activist?” But I know that talking about periods and the inequality around periods is not the norm. If that would make you describe me as an activist, I totally get it. If you feel like an activist, power to you, right? You’re pushing the status quo in your own way. Activism is something that we can all embody in some way.

How would you describe your leadership style? Would you say you identify strongly with any particular personality, or even a trope? Are you a workaholic? Do you excel at work-life balance? Are you learning on the fly?

I think I’m 100% learning on the fly. You have to be, right? I have imposter syndrome in real moments every day of like, “Wow, I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing,” but I don’t think anybody does. We’re going to try things out, trial and error, and that means it’s a bumpy ride, but it also means that you just keep activating. I think that’s the difference. You see this a lot with different organizers or young entrepreneurs. You either think a lot about the plan you want to act by or you actually go do it.

“I was all about work. I didn’t really have a social life. I would forget to go to the bathroom… That, for me, was being a workaholic, and I’m not proud of that.”

I’m definitely not an example of work-life balance. For me, the extreme of a workaholic was that I let every relationship fall. I was all about work. I didn’t really have a social life. I would forget to go to the bathroom. I wouldn’t take rest. I would be so tired from working so much that my health was deteriorating. I would faint because I forgot to drink water. That, for me, was being a workaholic, and I’m not proud of that. I don’t think that’s a healthy way to live, and I’m dealing with the repercussions of that now. And I’m actively trying to find better ways to have work-life balance. Especially as I build this team, I never want my team to feel that pressure, and that’s something I’m very much having to learn the hard way.

How can we apply the work that you do to the educational system?

So much of period poverty exists because there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the importance of menstrual hygiene and forgetting that the majority of the world menstruates. I think so many of the issues—whether it’s around period poverty, needing to normalize the issue, trying to destigmatize it at the same time—is normalizing the conversation around periods so they aren’t this scary experience where you have all these questions like, “Am I bleeding out? Am I bleeding too much? Why aren’t I getting my period? Why is my period so painful?”

From an educational perspective, where do people often learn about periods for the first time? Sex education class, right? And yet not everybody does. It’s usually that really high-level, scraping the surface sort of way. So, I think a big part of what we’re trying to do is say that this should be something that’s more widely talked about from an educational perspective.

What’s your process for building solidarity in the work you do, and what are some difficulties that you’ve had to overcome with solidarity?

I think listening. Wake up every day just knowing that you should always be sensing the voices of the people you’re working for. For my company, the consumers are the young people, the people who are eventually going to try August products, and the people who are in our community now. If you’re listening to the people you’re actually serving, that’s what it’s about, and trying to be an ally and empathetic even when the conversation is around experiences you don’t personally have.

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