Andrea Larson is here to introduce you to Chelsea VonChaz, founder of a female health movement with the goal of ensuring that every individual has access to menstrual dignity. The non-profit focuses on awareness and options, and VonChaz is not one to back down from the challenge: “Okay, we’re [states] going to tax you for your pads and tampons, knowing damn well you did not choose to have your period. You did not choose to be female.”
October 19 marks the first #NationalPeriodDay, a day dedicated to spreading the message about accessibility, or lack thereof, to menstrual health products in the United States. Today, there are 35 states that continue to tax menstrual health products claiming them to be “non-essential items,” according to the national movement spearheaded by PERIOD, a Portland-based non-profit.
#HappyPeriod was founded by Chelsea VonChaz and her mother Cheryyl Warner in February 2015. 2020 will mark the non-profit’s fifth year combatting the negative stigmas surrounding menstruation and its service to those seeking the most basic of menstruating necessities. Through social media campaigns and boots-on-the-ground activism, VonChaz, Warner and their team of ambassadors have created a platform to speak out about the many issues surrounding menstruation, and nothing is off-limits.
Read on for more about the company’s trajectory, the role race and age plays in conversations about menstruation, and ways to support the cause.
From your perspective, how are conversations surrounding menstruation different from one generation to the next, or one gender to the next?
Millennials are definitely way more open to talking about their period. It really depends on how they were raised and if they’re white or if they’re [a person] of color. If she’s white she’s way more open to talking about her period and period products. Someone of color may be way more embarrassed to talk about practicing menstrual health [regardless of age].
Women of color, we talk less about our periods. I’m paying more attention when it comes to different cultures and ethnicities as far as managing menstruation and talking about it. We [people of color] are still stuck in this whole “taboo” thing. A lot of us people of color, whether you are Native American, whether you are of Indian descent, or Caribbean descent, or Kenyan … we’re not really talking about it. It’s just a very slow process. We’re the last ones that have made it to the party, so to speak. White women are well into using menstrual cups, talking about blood, way more comfortable using tampons, way more comfortable using menstrual sponges. I’ve noticed that women of color are finally coming around now to talk about it.
This is why I go so hard on us talking about it because I am noticing that whether you live in Kingston or America, if you’re black and brown, chances are you’re still living in this very shame-filled bubble when it comes to your period. There is not much advancement or education there. I think I am changing that little by little.
When people of color are willing to talk about menstruation what are the conversations being had and by whom?
I have noticed that the generation behind me (I was born in ’88), the ones in their pre-teens, are way more into talking about their periods and they always have a lot of questions. They always want to know what they have to look forward to. Women who are suffering from endometrioses or dysmenorrhea [are often vocal about their periods], despite those being two separate conditions related to periods. Pain management is a huge concern for those individuals, mainly because of what those conditions bring as far as side effects are concerned. Somebody with endometrioses may pass out regularly during their period, or may have heavy bleeding, headaches, nausea, horrible pains. A lot of us black and brown women, we have these conditions like dysmenorrhea or uterine fibroids, those are the things that we are really concerned about because they affect our lives.
Do you feel like a lone woman on this quest to spread knowledge and have conversations about this topic?
I’m definitely not alone, and it’s definitely not new to me because I’m black and I’m female and I’ve had fibroids. There are dozens of women in this work that have been in this work for a very long time. I think people have been “sleeping” on this issue for a long time and it’s mainly because there’s no education. We have not been talking about it [enough].
We just started talking about periods in 2015. That was the year it seems that there were so many articles [on periods] and platforms talking about it. Periods were in the media like crazy in 2015.
Who are some notable people having these conversations?
There’s Dr. Jewel Pookrum, MD, PhD, MFS, a former surgeon and OB-GYN who’s been doing this work for a long time, and she’s still doing this work to this day. She tells people how they can heal themselves through nutrition and consciousness. Then there’s Queen Afua who has published so many books and pretty much changed the game. There are not a lot of folks willing to really put themselves out there to implement this kind of work in the school systems. Let’s face it, we don’t all have access to sex ed. Sex education in America is a joke.
We continue to spread knowledge through social media. That is what makes us different. My lane is a little different because I’m all about just talking about our periods, and growing and educationing each other from the social media side of things.
How have you seen the landscape of social media change these conversations since 2015?
It’s grown a lot, beyond how I imagined it initially. There are a lot of us still yearning to talk about things that we’re not supposed to talk about, or are told to be hush-hush on. There are a lot more girls, women, trans individuals, a lot of people in general that want to learn more. Even men. I’m all about being inclusive. I am talking about men who do not menstruate here as well. Men who have daughters or plan on having kids and they want to know more about women’s health, because it matters to them as it should matter to anybody.
What has your team been up to in the last year? Any notable highlights?
We’ve added schools to our program and are providing products to schools. We’ve done a couple of menstrual health workshops here in LA and I’ve done a couple of remote workshops out in Belize, Kenya and Haiti. In early 2020 we will launch our menstrual health program that has a curriculum for students, and any schools that participate with us or that partner with us will receive donations for their students. It will be a program outside of the volunteer (ambassadorship) advocacy program that’s already in place.
Is your U.S.-based ambassadorship program expanding?
The ambassadorship program still exists and is expanding as far as the number of ambassadors we have. An ambassador can be from anywhere. You can be a #HappyPeriod ambassador in Ghana … Alabama … it really doesn’t matter location-wise. It’s all about sticking to the mission and spreading the word on initiative. (Editor's note: Learn more about being an ambassador here.)
Are there any health or policy initiatives currently on your radar?
There are a lot of bills that have been written and brought to the state, especially here in California. I have spoken with some bad-ass women who are on the forefront of that movement.
I have also noticed that some products are changing their packaging and labels. Products are actually being properly labeled to say if they have bleach in them or other crazy chemicals. Products are being provided for free to women in prison, women and girls in schools and, shit, even workplaces. We still have more than half of this country’s states deciding whether or not to remove the tampon-tax. Mardi Gras beads are now actually taxed. Since the beginning of time, since a bead was a bead, a Mardi Gras was part of the tradition, the culture of Louisiana. They were not taxed, but pads, tampons, liners were taxed. In some states memberships to gun ranges are tax free but menstrual products are taxed.
How can people get involved in this movement and change the conversation surrounding menstruation?
As individuals we need to have more conversations and demand answers. We aren’t demanding change. We’re not paying enough attention. Often when we do pay attention, it’s too late.