Period activist Nadya Okamoto talks youth power, burnout and identity with Pitt’s Asian Student Alliance


Image courtesy of Pitt’s Asian Student Alliance

Pitt’s Asian Student Alliance poses for a group photo with Nadya Okamoto in the William Pitt Union on Friday.

By Tanya Babbar, Staff Writer

For most people who menstruate, waking up and starting a period makes for an unpleasant morning. For entrepreneur and period activist Nadya Okamoto, it’s an exciting time to post period-related content on TikTok.

Pitt’s Asian Student Alliance hosted a guided Q&A session on Friday night with Okamoto and moderators Joshua Nguyen, a junior microbiology and art history major, and Ana Rowley, a junior environmental science major. Okamoto shared the good, the bad and the dirty about her work fighting against period stigma.

“Just like you succeed in public, it’s also public when you mess up,” Okamoto said. 

Finding a passion for menstrual health and equity at a young age, Okamoto said she founded the nonprofit, PERIOD, at 16 years old. After leaving PERIOD in January 2020, she founded the sustainable period company, August. She also wrote a menstrual movement manifesto book and has garnered four million followers on TikTok. 

Despite feeling confident enough to dance online with her pad showing, Okamoto has faced criticism from herself and the public throughout her journey as a public figure.

Okamoto said behind the scenes of a lot of positive moments in her life, she had years of exhaustion, hospital trips and self-hatred. Despite wanting to destigmatize mental health for others, Okamoto found herself putting her own struggles on the backburner to focus on growing PERIOD.

“For many years until very recently, I was hiding my own burnout or my own failures because I just wanted people to believe in what I was doing,” Okamoto said. “I was having to convince people like, ‘Look, I’m stable. I’m like emotionally okay, and you can give me money as a teenager to grow this nonprofit,’ and not saying, ‘I’m like borderline suicidal and like trying to figure out like how I’m gonna get sleep and like I hate myself.’” 

This unhealthy pressure to climb to the top not only hurt Okamoto’s mental health — it also led to criticism from those she might have stepped on along the way. 

At the height of the Black Lives Matter movement in summer 2020, Black activists and organizers in the period poverty movement publicly called out Okamoto for hogging resources, plagiarizing the work of Black activists and pressuring grassroots period organizations to dissolve. Following this controversy, Okamoto stepped down from her position as executive director of PERIOD. 

Okamoto said the experience taught her more about her identity as an Asian American and some of the privileges associated with it. She said the backlash devastated her mental health, forcing her to confront colorblindness within her beliefs and how prioritizing success above all else affected her relationships.

For Okamoto, having her entire life and career on social media caused struggles with her identity, and she said she needed time for self-reflection and growth.

“I suddenly saw my public image in the negative light and I had no disconnect between like who I am as a person and my public image,” Okamoto said. 

Falling into a deep depression, Okamoto’s family placed her in rehabilitation for six weeks in 2020. During this time, she confronted her PTSD, which helped her to come to terms with events.

“We hear a lot about leading from a place of abundance and love, rather than fear and scarcity. It wasn’t until rehab that I was like, ‘What are the things that I’ve been honestly criticized for? Not being able to say no to opportunities because I don’t want to give them up?’” Okamoto said. 

The fear of not giving up opportunities, she explained, came from her family’s cultural belief of working hard at all costs.

“I instilled a lot of competition with myself and with everyone else, which is not great for community and not great for self-confidence,” Okamoto said. 

In learning the harm that comes from not acknowledging the privileges of her identity, Okamoto now focuses on using identity to empower youth activism, as well as the lessons she can give to other young activists.

For ASA students like Kimberly Chen, a junior finance and business information sciences major, the vulnerability that Okamoto shared in person, rather than online, made attending the event valuable. 

“I feel like on TikTok, what I mostly see is her showing her products and promoting period awareness, but through this event, I learned a lot more on how she got to where she was and going through traumatic things. She’s a really great speaker — the time flew by,” Chen said.

Okamoto said her work in period activism began as a teenager, when she found herself caring about menstruation more than boys. Okamoto told the audience to take their passions seriously.

“If there’s something you’re really passionate about, like, you go get involved. You know, every organization or company is looking for new talent, new diverse talent, by the way,” Okamoto said.

While a student’s passion does not have to revolve around period health, Okamoto said contributing to the period movement can be part of everyday life. 

“I think destigmatizing periods can be just having a conversation with your parents, or making sure period products are in your workplace restroom, or talking to your boyfriend or nonmenstruating friends about it,” Okamoto said.