In this episode of Reckoning, Kathryn Kosmides speaks with Katie Diasti about period poverty and menstruation education. Katie is the CEO and founder of Viv, an earth-friendly direct-to-consumer period care brand innovating in the sustainable consumer goods space.
In this episode, Katie discusses:
Welcome to reckoning, a podcast that explores gender based justice, safety, survival, and resilience in the digital age, through conversations with experts and advocates. I'm your host, Kathryn Kosmides the founder and CEO of Garbo, a tech non-profit building a new kind of online background check.
Before we jump in, I'd like to warn our audience, that we have raw honest conversations about gender based violence, which may be too much for some listeners. Please put your safety and health above all else when listening.
Kathryn: Today, we're talking with Katie Diasti from Viv, welcome.
Katie: Thank you so much for having me. I'm really excited to be here.
Kathryn: We're excited to have you on the show today. Today. We'll be talking about period poverty. So first, can you talk a little bit about what period poverty is?
Katie: Yeah, so period poverty - and we oftentimes also use the term menstrual equity - these things that aren't very familiar with a lot of people, but it's mainly the lack of access to menstrual sanitary products, but also access to facilities where you're able to use those products. Those both kind of go hand in hand and it's actually quite astonishing how many young menstruators in the US lack access to these products and then the kind of emotional and different class level issues that creates. Whether it be in schools or among shelters, one in five women menstruators and teens in the US actually struggle to afford period care today. And one in fourteen is often missing class due to these things. So there's a huge lack of access products in general.
Kathryn: That's insane. I didn't realize those were the statistics even here, in the United States. That's kind of crazy.
Katie: Yeah, exactly. We often think of it as an international issue. We don't really think of it here, there's a ton of work that needs to be done right here in the US too.
Kathryn: And, period products cannot be purchased with food stamps, Medicaid, or health insurance. So these folks really have no way of purchasing these products with the support systems that are in place today.
Katie: Exactly. Donations to schools and shelters and providing free period care products and bathrooms are a great way to combat this. But there still will always be that lack of access due to the cost, and not having them on food stamps.
Kathryn: Definitely. Can you tell us a little bit about your company?
Katie: Yeah, I'd love to. So Viv is an earth-friendly period care brand. We make all biodegradable products. Our products don't contain any plastic and don't contain any toxins. What we see is there's actually a ton of plastic waste in everyday period care products that we have found on the market. And there's also quite frequently, a lot of toxins in these products, and a lot of young menstruators and menstruators, in general, don't know that this exists. And so when we learned these stats, we found a really great opportunity to make a product that is more sustainable. And our products are also made out of bamboo fiber, which is a much more sustainable crop than cotton or even organic cotton. So that's what our products are made out of. And then we also deliver direct to consumers through a subscription model or one-time purchase via our website.
Kathryn: I love that. Talking about ingredient transparency, I think like 10 years ago, or when I first started my period back in the day, you were just handed a box of tampons and didn't really think about the ingredients inside of them.
Katie: Exactly. And so many people are unaware of the products despite how long they've had their period. I was one of those people too, and I still talk to menstruators and people who have periods all the time and I'm telling them the stats about how much plastics and their products and their jaw literally drops to the floor because they just think about "Oh my gosh, like how many of those have I used? And never even known what was in them." And it was kind of this taboo topic for so long. So these bigger companies didn't really have to even worry about putting ingredients on there. How long people would spend in the aisle? A lot of times people would just quickly grab something, leave and not want to look into it too much, you know? It was something that felt shameful even during the purchasing time.
Kathryn: Exactly, exactly. That shame and that stigma. So why do you think there is still so much stigma around periods?
Katie: I was talking to a friend about this recently and we were thinking back to elementary school days when we first were being taught about our periods. And if our parents were telling us about our periods, we were split into different rooms based on our gender to start, and it was okay, girls in one room, boys in one room, and then we were told about this daunting thing that was puberty. We were genuinely encouraged to hide our products, like up our sleeve or in a pocket or in a boot, like all of these little tricks to ensure that no one knew you had your period. And from the job where like: "Okay, this is something I need to hide. Like, this is something other people shouldn't know I'm having, this must be something embarrassing and shameful". And I think a lot of it does come down to that like first introductory education cause is something new and a bit daunting if you don't know what's happening, but if it's introduced in a way, that's like: "Hey, this is normal. Like other people have this." Then it would have been a lot easier to break down more stigmas we see today.
Kathryn: Exactly. As you put it kind of unlearning what we were taught. Because it's so dangerous what we're taught. I remember the same classes and I'm like: "What the heck? Like, where are they teaching us?" Just to be ashamed of our bodies and to be ashamed of something natural, you know?
Katie: Exactly, exactly. It's, it's honestly so fascinating. See how, how much we can look back on and realize we need to unlearn so many things that have been taught to us. And I think this is one of those things that we're just realizing we have to unlearn too.
Kathryn: And what are some other things that we can do to reduce the taboo and stigma around periods?
Katie: There's a lot of work to be done in general, right? We need to create greater access, but I always encourage others to start small and have conversations amongst their friends. So in conversation, like when you're going to back them, take that extra step by not concealing your products. When you're hanging out with people you're comfortable with, maybe start engaging in conversations about either period poverty or your own cycle. Or ask questions about the cycle and be more willing to converse about it. We've been using this hashtag a lot on our social media, it's called # talkaboutperiods. And just encouraging more dialogue amongst it so it is less of this like secret taboo topic.
Kathryn: I totally agree that friends should talk about periods, because it's not just being on your period, right? It's a whole cycle. and we're not talking about the cycle. Like I know I get really bad acne right before my period happens. And I'm like, "Oh, I'm going to start next week" and things like that. And so I just know, but we don't talk about these things. And so they become taboo even between friends.
Katie: Exactly the fact that we even lower tone of voice when we're talking about it. And it was just such a clear lack of confidence in the subject. That's definitely one easier way to start, and it's definitely harder for some. there's also quite a bit of education to some understanding your own cycle, which is something we've been encouraging others to do. And we just partnered with a menstrual cycle coach, which I didn't know was even a full profession, but completely makes sense because there's so much, we don't know about our cycles and everyone is different. And it's not just that like one week or so where you have your actual period, it's the whole times around it that does matter. To that's been so interesting as I even learned more and more every day about our own body.
Kathryn: That's incredible. No, that's, I think, a great thing to do. What are your thoughts on the quote pink tax?
Katie: Oh my goodness. This is such a wild topic because when I tell people about it, they genuinely don't believe me because it is quite unbelievable. And I had issues with this when I was first talking about Viv and pitching Viv. I was bringing up the pink tax lot because that's something that as a brand, we try to fight against and create a lot of awareness and advocacy for, and basically it's a luxury tax on menstrual hygiene products. And now this is quite surprising because there is not a tax on some male products like Rogaine and Viagra, but essential menstrual hygiene products, you do have a tax. So that is clear, clear gender discrepancy there. That's something we've been working to create awareness around.
Kathryn: And I read that 35 states view tampons as a luxury item, 35 states. That's absurd.
Katie: Yeah. We're finally starting to see some moves and legislation. One state slowly after another, will start to remove it. But it's kind of surprising how much work it takes, even just to remove those initial taxes. But definitely starting to see some states get rid of those taxes.
Kathryn: It kind of reminds me: so I live in New York City and it reminds me of how gendered the subway ads can be, right? You can see ads for Viagra and all these different male drugs on the subway. But, I know a sex tech company tried to run an ad and, a period company tried to run an ad and they were denied. And it's the same kind of thing that sexism leaking into kind of everything.
Katie: Exactly. And it's interesting as we even continue to try to build our brand and our ads, and we've had, some like male mentors and VCs and all these people being like: "Oh, have you considered changing your URL?" Cause our URL is vivforyourv.com and I'm like: "Hmm, like why is that? Does it make you uncomfortable? Like, do you think it doesn't portray our brand properly?" And it's understanding like who our audience is. And those people are really confident and comfortable with periods, but we want to encourage more people to be like that too. The whole ad side of things is still a very male-dominated field too. And it's hard to get a lot of those ads past.
Kathryn: How can we ensure that everyone has a dignified menstrual cycle?
Katie: I always like to start with one person, to begin with. What we've been working on is using more inclusive language when talking about periods. So we'll say the term menstruator or person with a period, since a period itself is not a gender thing, it's a biological function. And that is a whole other more complex issue of how people view their relationships with their periods. Another thing that we could do is start small. Understanding that these products are quite frequently needed for donation, but literally, there are not many donations happening. We'll often see canned goods, clothing, even money being donated way more frequently than we see menstrual products being donated to school shelters, nonprofits, like all of those things. And so being really open about asking what specific things people want before just showing up with big bags of things is crucial. That's something that the Viv team in general, and what we've been doing is trying to actually talk to organizations and shelters and saying, "Well, okay, so you need products. What kind of products are best?", knowing that pads are the most donated products cause they take the least amount of education and the least amount of access to bathrooms and sinks and hygienic like restrooms and places like that. But again, it's also about educating yourself on periods and the stigmas around them and then questioning why we try to conceal them so often.
Kathryn: I know you guys donate quite a bit of product to shelters and things like that. I was reading a recent piece and they talked about well-meaning, middle-class women - I will say white women likely - who started saying "Why don't we just donate menstrual cups? They're reusable and they're more sanitary" and et cetera. Without actually thinking about what a person in a shelter is actually experiencing, that to have a menstrual cup, you have to have boiling water to clean it. And most people don't have access to stoves or boiling water or anything like that. They might not even have access to a private bathroom. And obviously, menstruation cups take a lot of getting to know your body quite well. I think it's just, a lack of education on our parts to really understand, so I really appreciate that you guys do that.
Katie: Yeah, exactly. And it's really as simple as just asking what people need rather than assuming. Menstrual cups are still something and we started selling menstrual cups because we had such high demand, but it's definitely not something that we look to donate quite often unless it's specifically requested. And that's simply because we are aware of what products are needed and it's definitely not mentioned cups. And you said that perfectly, that's exactly why. It's the lack of access to boiling water, and clean bathrooms, and the sink. That is communal.
Kathryn: Exactly, exactly... So is there anything that you would like to leave the audience listening with about period poverty or just periods in general?
Katie: It is something that needs to be discussed more. And I think it's something that we need to, as we teach younger generations about periods, you already see this amazing new generation of Gen Z being these awesome activists - I can tell that they're probably not going to let this stigma last too long - and helping them break that stigma earlier. By doing that, I think we need to raise up other menstruators at the same time and make sure that they don't feel ashamed and that no one is making fun of them for such a natural process. So I always encourage young, young women to always be watching out for each other and helping each other out. And I think periods are such a unifying thing at the same time as they are daunting and scary. We can see that in little things like someone is always willing to give you a product if you are in need. Keeping up that unifying aspect while breaking down the hush-hush aspect is the best way to start small.
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