Kelmscott Secondary School is a sea of gray skirts and trousers, blazers over crisp white shirts with striped repp ties. Its uniform is completely ordinary, nearly identical to countless other schools across the UK, except for one detail. Pinned to every student is a three-inch piece of red and white acrylic in the shape of a rocket with a little string dangling from the bottom.
Immediately recognizable, it still takes a second to register.
It’s a tampon badge, a sign that things are not as mundane as they appear in this northeast London school.
While young women at other schools whisper among themselves for a forgotten pad or secret tampons on their walk to bathrooms, menstrual products—and an awareness of their importance for women’s health—are front and center at Kelmscott. That taboo has been shattered by the very determined young women and men in the WE Club. In its place is a schoolwide understanding of period poverty, the lack of access to menstrual products and the problems it causes for girls and women.
When WE Club leaders Pam Ereira and Sarah Dempsey first raised the subject of period poverty with their group, they were met with awkward giggles and downward cast faces. The boys in the room were suddenly obsessed with their shoelaces, while the girls (certain their embarrassment was theirs alone) felt their necks warm to a crimson tone.
But then they learned about the issue. Soon, righteous frustration replaced the uncomfortable laughter. The WE Club took aim at twin problems: lack of access for menstrual products and the larger stigma keeping girls from discussing their periods. “Periods aren’t disgusting, vaginas aren’t dirty,” rails Georgiana, a Year 10 student. “But when they stay hidden, when we feel like we can’t talk about them, it makes us feel alone.”
Period poverty is a global issue affecting tens of millions of women and girls, putting their health at risk, keeping them from school and sequestering them from society. In the UK, which levies a luxury tax on menstrual products, 10 percent of girls struggle to afford tampons or pads, more than 135,000 miss school every year for lack of access and half of girls under 21 report being embarrassed of their periods.
Determined to combat these stats, the WE Club launched an awareness-raising campaign. Repeat a stigmatized word enough times and you rob it of its power. The taboo melts away—once weighty, it becomes ordinary.
Period. Period. P-E-R-I-O-D. Period.
The more the WE Club members said the words—vagina, period, tampon, menstruation—the less heavy they felt. It was like an incantation.
In linguistics, this phenomenon is called semantic satiation, the process by which a word is stripped of its meaning through repetition. Students in Kelmscott’s WE Club wanted to use it as their weapon to normalize the menstrual cycle. That’s where the tampon badges come in, finger-length conversation starters with the power to shock the stigma out of the student body. What was once hidden is now pinned to nearly every student and teacher, adorning the school uniform for all to see.
“We’re not alone, we’re part of the same fight.”
Georgiana—along with fellow WE Club members and Year 10 students Ruzilja, Sabrina and Geanina—made more than 700 badges, thanks to financial support from a Team London Small Grant for Schools. Each badge sold raised funds for the Red Box Project, a nationwide campaign providing menstrual products to schools. With the pins ready to distribute, they started on the awareness component of their campaign, holding assemblies for their classmates every morning for a week. “The first day, we just froze on stage because it was so nerve-racking,” recalls Sabrina. Boys sniggered. Girls looked away. But the group pressed on. “As we went through the week, we became more comfortable. It’s completely natural, so why be shy about it?”
If saying the words among themselves was a subtle incantation and the badges a discreet talisman, what came next was a full-blown show of force aimed at eradicating the very idea that vaginas should be hidden.
Right inside the entrance to the school, WE Club members built an art installation, adorning a red tent with linens and duvets, tampon-shaped cushions and rose petals. The result: a five-foot-high vagina, complete with a womb lining, menstrual products and artful blood. For context, students outlined their work of art with statistics about women’s health, making the facts impossible to ignore.
The first day it was up, they had an immediate positive response. Teachers and classmates started asking questions, crawling in, even taking selfies. On parent’s night, dozens voiced their support.
Taken together, the campaigns have been transformative for both the WE Club members and the wider school, Sarah explains. The young women in the group discovered their confidence and became leaders; the young men expanded their empathy with eyes opened to a pressing problem. And, in the school halls, the conversation has fundamentally shifted. “Everyone is contributing,” says Geanina of the philosophy WE has helped foster. “We’re not alone, we’re part of the same fight.”
After the final bell on a recent Tuesday afternoon, a science teacher rushes past the young women and their installation, heading home for the day. “Sir,” Geanina calls out, “you haven’t gone in!”
“Of course I have,” he responds whip fast, “the first day you put it up!” Testament to their newfound confidence, they cajole him back in within seconds, all the while explaining the importance of the project.
A vagina is just a body part, a period a natural process. Tampons and pads are just health products. All women deserve dignity. They have a voice and they’re not afraid to use it. “After the shame, after the embarrassment, comes understanding and discussion,” says Geanina. “Then, action.”
Jesse Mintz is a lifelong learner and believer in the power of stories to educate and inspire. He knows everyone has an interesting story—it’s just a matter of asking the right questions.