It first happened when Jessica Nordon was 12 and at a sleepover with 10 other girls. She didn’t tell anyone and suffered quietly. Her mom had packed pads for her, just in case.
Lisa Pierce Johnson was 11 and at school. Though she was prepared — she’d walked around for months carrying a “little special bag” of supplies — she was alarmed when the time came. There was so much blood, she worried she’d lost her kidney.
Trey Harper remembers seeing his older sisters’ tampons in the trashcan when he was a kid; he thought they were cigarettes. His mom told him otherwise.
Lauren Grace Perry was a freshman in high school, and one of the last of her friends to experience it. She’d grown up in a home that didn’t talk about periods very much. Still, she was older and knew what to expect.
The origin story differs for everyone, but the outcome is a “universal experience,” Perry, who’s 18 now, said. “It’s something that every single woman in the world from the beginning of time has dealt with.”
Periods may be universal, but talking about them — and the issues they can create for people who have them — is not.
This year, more than 2 in 5 people with periods in the U.S. said they’ve struggled to afford products like pads or tampons at one point or another, a 35% increase from the same data in 2018. In North Texas, people like Nordon, Pierce Johnson, Harper and Perry are working to address period poverty — and multiply conversation around it — through education, donations and legislation.
Period poverty is the inability for a person to consistently, safely access supplies like pads and tampons, as well as period education. It’s a symptom of poverty and sometimes requires people to make a choice, according to Nordon, who runs a Pilot Point-based period equity organization: Buy tampons or spend those dollars on another basic need, like food.
Period poverty requires mental calculus
When Liz Jenkins was a little girl, she didn’t know much about menstruation, but she did know pads were expensive. A first-generation immigrant who moved from Mexico to Tarrant County when she was 3, Jenkins felt petrified when her own period came.
Her mother, who had been a physician assistant in Mexico, showed her where she kept the pads at home. Jenkins learned that men weren’t supposed to know if you were on your period, that tampons weren’t for “young ladies,” and that you could lengthen a pad’s life by changing it only when it was “properly soiled.” That meant once, maybe twice a day. It was a lecture she received often, a reminder to use the pads scarcely because of their cost.
“It wasn’t meant to reprimand me for doing something bad,” she said. “It was more to educate me and say, ‘Hey, these were expensive. So, don’t keep using a new one every time you go to the restroom.’”
For those first few years, Jenkins wore the pads her mom brought home. They were “very small, thin, like cardboard,” she said, and not big enough to cover her as a 5’9” 12-year-old. Sometimes, she had to double up.
When she needed help, she asked her girlfriends, who were also tall, how to navigate. They told her about overnight pads. She asked the school nurse, who gave her supplies and recommended she start keeping track of her period. And, she asked the internet.
When she turned 15, Jenkins started babysitting and got a job in fast food. She used the money she made to buy pads and tampons for her and for her little sister, and she taught her sister what she’d learned.
Her access issues extended through college at Texas Tech, partly because she didn’t have a car. She meticulously budgeted for period supplies. She mapped out how many pads she needed for days when she had a light flow, a medium flow, a heavy flow, and used her calculations to help her get by.
Jenkins wants people to know that period poverty is “not just a phase in life when you’re younger or when you’re older. It could happen at any time.”
Period poverty affects the whole person
The inability to afford period products can affect a person’s mental and physical health, as well as their opportunities in other realms, like education.
High school students who aren’t able to access period products at school are more likely to miss school, attend late or leave early, according to a 2019 study in Women’s Reproductive Health. That can also mean missing extracurricular activities and, as a result, a sense of belonging, according to Pierce Johnson, the vice chair of She Supply, a Flower Mound-based nonprofit that provides period products and underwear to organizations and schools throughout North Texas.
College-aged people who face period poverty are more likely to experience depression, according to a 2021 study in BMC Women’s Health; if they faced period poverty every month, they were more likely to experience severe depression.
If a person can’t afford a period product, they sometimes make do with toilet paper, paper towels, rags or strips of cloth. Some use children’s diapers available in public restrooms, or old socks. Makeshift aids like these can “exacerbate infection,” Nordon said.
Period products can cost several dollars per box. Government programs like SNAP and WIC, which help people pay for food, don’t cover them. And the majority of states, including Texas, tax period products like pads and tampons.
“If you are homeless, or you are low income, every single cent matters. And that can be the difference between having one pad for an entire week or being able to afford an entire package for an entire week,” Perry said.
How the Texas tax code approaches period products
The FDA regulates tampons as medical devices. However, period products are considered hygiene products under Texas tax code, according to Kevin Lyons, spokesperson for the Texas comptroller’s office, which means they’re taxed.
Different types of medical devices exist in the Texas tax code. For example, the tax code specifically exempts medical devices like hearing aids, prescription eyeglasses and prosthetic limbs.
But for something to be considered a “therapeutic” device, it must be designed to “alleviate pain or for use during the treatment or cure of human sickness, disease, suffering, or deformity,” according to the tax code.
“For the purposes of the law and the tax code, our office is not going to say something that happens to women that is normal is some kind of weird thing, a human sickness or deformity,” Lyons said.
Even if period products were considered therapeutic devices, a physician would need to prescribe them in order for them to be tax-exempt in the current code, he said.
This past legislative session, Texas lawmakers introduced multiple bills that would specifically exempt period products from Texas’ sales and use tax. One bill, HB 321, advanced out of committee after an April hearing but effectively died when the legislative session ended.
Combatting period shame in Nepal and North Texas
Advocating for bills like these is part of the work for Nordon, who founded Chhaupadi, a period equity organization based in Pilot Point. In October, Nordon and representatives from other period organizations around Texas will travel to Dallas to protest the tampon tax.
Nordon’s own interest in period poverty stemmed from her observations as a solo traveler. In 2017, she visited Nepal and discovered chhaupadi: a practice in parts of the country of “shunning” women and girls while they menstruate, she said. Because they’re seen as unclean or untouchable, they temporarily reside in a hut outside the home for a week or more, which can lead to infection, sexual assault, and animal attacks.
“If you don’t have access to those products, or if you don’t have access to that conversation (about periods), it’s going to affect who you are as a person.”Jessica Nordon, founder and CEO of Chhaupadi
Nordon intended to return to Nepal to help destigmatize menstruation. When the pandemic began, she pivoted and focused on diminishing period stigma in North Texas.
She and her team canvass at farmers’ markets, coordinate period cabinets — like tiny libraries, but for period products — and provide local organizations, including schools and prisons, with period supplies. Chhaupadi recently donated 1,000 period products to a community of refugees newly arrived from Afghanistan.
“If you don’t have access to those products, or if you don’t have access to that conversation (about periods), it’s going to affect who you are as a person,” she said.
Doing unto others at TCU and beyond
For Lauren Grace Perry, creating space for those conversations is a central component of period equity. When she was a senior in high school in Little Rock, Arkansas, Perry took a course that required her to research and write a thesis.
She’d been thinking about periods for a while by that point, after having her own on a trip to Rwanda three years before. She’d wondered how local women navigate their periods, and the questions only multiplied when she learned about the “tampon tax” in the U.S.
Her final thesis delved into menstruation — how it’s been represented through history, when tampons and pads were created, the economics of period poverty and, finally, solutions.
When she started at TCU on the pre-law track last fall, she had hoped to volunteer with She Supply. But the pandemic required her to think even more locally and digitally. She’d heard about people starting their own clothing lines with nothing more than a website, design and distributor.
So, she launched DUO, which stands for ‘do unto others,’ a reference to the golden rule her parents taught her when she was a child. She sells goods like hoodies and hats and gives 30% of her earnings to a different period equity organization each month. Since January, she thinks she’s donated close to $1,000.
Her central goal is to start a dialogue about what it means to do unto others. For her, that looks like destigmatizing periods, one conversation after another.
Pursuing dignity one person at a time
Annette White coordinates the New Hope Center, a food and clothing pantry in Bedford that provides emergency assistance to people for free. The Center, a project of 6 Stones, receives period products and underwear from She Supply. Since she’s become coordinator, White said she’s noticed an uptick in women taking those products from the Center.
Originally “they didn’t mind asking for food. They didn’t mind asking for clothes or shoes or anything like that,” she said. “But they were very embarrassed about asking for feminine products.”
Once White started connecting with them, the women opened up. They told her they needed the products for themselves and their daughters on a regular basis, and wondered how much they could take. Now, they’re “taking that stuff faster than we could even put it out,” she said.
The ability to consistently access those products is an issue of dignity, according to Trey Harper, the director of development at Community Link, a food pantry in Saginaw. She Supply has been providing Community Link with period products and underwear since 2018. When people visit the food pantry, they can also pick their own products for free.
“It allows us to give our clients even more dignity, which is a focus of our work here,” Harper said. “And if we’re providing them those products, the idea is that, hopefully, they’re able to use their financial resources on other things like their bills.”
Now, in her late 30s, Jenkins keeps period products all over the house. Her husband calls them “manhole covers and bottle rockets,” monikers left over from his own childhood growing up with sisters.
And, she’s created what she’s dubbed the vampire box (“Vampires are the only ones that like blood. I don’t.”), which she stuffs with period products and keeps around the house for her, her girlfriends and their daughters when they visit.
These days, she buys in bulk. When she’s on her period, she and her husband call it “shark week.”
Some of Jenkins’ closest friends don’t know that she’s experienced period poverty.
“I want people to realize that this has happened to your best friend, or this could happen to your child,” she said. “It could happen to your child when they’re older, and they’re struggling to make ends meet because of this pandemic.”
Jenkins hopes people realize that women navigate these issues even in the U.S., even in Tarrant County. She chose to share her story to make her own motto manifest: “Your struggles are somebody else’s help-up.”
Alexis Allison is the health reporter at the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from Texas Health Resources. Contact her by email or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.