According to menstrual mythology, the modern tampon was created by a man named John Williamson, who stuffed a condom with cotton-like filling. By that logic, tampons would have been created in the shape of a penis rather than a vagina. And when you stop to think about it, tampons do open cylindrically — but is a vagina cylindrical?
Harvard grad Nadya Okamoto, the queer, Asian American co-founder of August, a period care company, brought this question to TikTok — where she went viral — when she explained that she designed tampons with the intention of actually fitting a vagina, and they don't open cylindrically.
“Our tampons open axially, so they open to the sides,” she explained to me, just as she does in her TikTok videos. “This won't put pressure on the sides of your vaginal walls. At the same time, it will fill up with blood from the top part, where the cervix opens, but it will still stay slimmer at the bottom so that when you pull it out, it's more comfortable.”
As the uterus lining is broken down during a period, blood, tissue, and nutrients are released from the uterus, through the opening in the cervix, and out the vagina.
To be clear, vaginas come in different shapes, sizes, and colors. Imaging studies have shown that most vaginas are “narrower toward the vaginal opening and wider toward the cervix. This usually forms a ‘V’ shape.”
Assuming a vagina is a sort of cylindrical case for a penis is not that far-fetched — the word "vagina" literally means "sheath" in Latin, while "gladius," Latin slang for "penis," means "sword."
In addition to their innovative design, August tampons (and pads) are made using 100% organic cotton and are fully biodegradable within 12 months — a stark contrast to a typical pad, which can take 500 to 800 years to decompose, and a pack of pads, which has the plastic equivalent of three to five plastic bags. “We have no plastic in them, and we use food-grade glue so that, even with the stickiness, it's completely absorbent,” Nadya told me.
To demonstrate how August tampons work, Nadya posts videos on TikTok using fake period blood. She even posts content using her own period blood on her personal account. And though Nadya is trying to dispel menstrual stigma and realistically depict periods — when viewers asked about the color of her period blood, she educated them on why period blood can differ in color — August's first advertisement was taken down by TikTok for 'violent and graphic content.'
“This biological function is what makes human life possible. It’s a natural thing that over half of our global population experiences,” Nadya said.
“It makes me sad when other young menstruators are like, ‘That's disgusting,’ because I'm like, ‘But you menstruate; you see this. By you saying that, it's like you also think that your own menstrual blood is disgusting. And that comes from the societal understanding that periods are gross and periods are shameful.”
As a matter of fact, it wasn’t until 2020 that a period ad (by Kotex) even used red liquid, instead of blue, to demonstrate pad absorbency. So while you may be grossed out by period blood, menstrual stigma and subsequent censorship really speak to larger issues around menstrual care — including poor menstrual education in schools, period poverty, and mental health.
By middle school, preteens already know to slip a tampon into their sleeves or hide a pad in their waistbands. “We’re conditioned to think that this small wad of cotton is worth so much shame that we have to hide it at all costs — even bringing our whole backpack to the bathroom. No one tells us that, right, specifically?” Nadya noted.
While menstrual concealment is standardized, proper and objective menstrual education is not. In 1946, Walt Disney Productions (commissioned by Kimberly-Clark) produced one of the first commercially sponsored films distributed to American high schools, called The Story of Menstruation. But rather than emphasize that menstruation is normal and therefore nothing to be ashamed of, the 10-minute animated film normalizes menstrual shame.
Frankly, menstrual education videos have not improved much since 1946. Of course, Disney was not the first to position menstruation as an issue of hygiene and secrecy — period care companies had and have used the same stigmatic marketing for decades.
This stigma and obfuscation surrounding menstruation are problematic in ways beyond principle. For one, they make it difficult for menstruators to clearly communicate with and receive accurate treatment from their healthcare providers. (As an example, endometriosis takes, on average, seven years to diagnose, in part due to period pain myths.)
Furthermore, despite being a public health crisis, period poverty has no visibility. A 2021 study cites that nearly one-quarter of US students have experienced period poverty and, during the pandemic, 16% of students have chosen period products over food or clothes. When she spoke to menstruators experiencing homelessness, Nadya learned that many use toilet paper, socks, paper bags, and cardboard in lieu of period products since food stamps do not cover them.
Naturally, period poverty and stigma are enough to affect mental health, but menstruation itself can impact mental health, too. While usually thought of as just periods, menstruation is actually the full 4-phase, 28-day (on average) cycle, during which hormone levels (including estrogen, which has been linked to serotonin) change. And as Nadya pointed out, “Hormonal changes equal mental health changes.”
Fundamentally, Nadya believes period care companies have a responsibility to improve period care and dispel menstrual stigma. This belief drove her to design better fitted and more functional tampons, create sustainable period products, and absorb the tampon tax through August. She even created Ask August, a digital tool and resource, to help create a safe community for menstruators to learn about menstruation.
For her part, Nadya concluded, “Regardless of where my career takes me, I'm completely passionate about and thrilled by the workaround improving quality period care and ending period poverty and stigma.”
Despite the societal acceptance of period care as it is, many issues and stigma surrounding menstruation, from menstrual education to period poverty, need to be confronted — even if it starts just by taking a moment to think about the actual shape of your vagina.