Self-Taught: Chelsea VonChaz
You have all heard the classic female tale. Whether bleeding through your khaki uniform pants and your mom telling you, “You’re a woman now,” losing your virginity in the back of an old pick-up truck at summer camp, or becoming a mother after a seamless pregnancy and having your perfectly round-headed and healthy baby placed on your ready-to-breastfeed chest, you know these movie quality stories to be wildly uncommon. You instead, as resilient you are, guide yourself through the untold truth of femininity.
You throw away 100 tampons before knowing how to use one. You lose your virginity on a messy, confusing, and imperfect night and you experience birth in a deeply personal and courageous way that likely completely deviated from your best-laid birth plan. Yet, you, as a powerful and resourceful force of nature, figure it out. You talk to your friends, converse with the Google Search Bar, and overcome the unknown.
Welcome to Self-Taught, where we discuss how women teach themselves about their bodies—because we’ve all been failed by school courses, perplexed by movie scenes, and embarrassed by conversations with parents and peers.
For far too long, flawed systems and unrealistic media have depicted the female body—the female experience—as too skinny, too fat, too messy or neat, disgusting or pristine, but rarely the truth that lies between every extreme. In Self-Taught, we’ll share stories of how women uncovered flaws in systems, products, and lore, and taught themselves that there is a better way—and they deserve better.
Some of our moms help us through our period, and some moms help us start a company to provide products and support to thousands of other women. Chelsea VonChaz started Happy Period with her mom, Cheryl Warner, five years ago hoping to educate women on their periods. We interviewed Chelsea to discover the ways in which she has discovered her own body and shared that knowledge to impact others.
Would you mind telling me about your first period and what it was like for you?
My first period happened when I was 10 and I was prepared. I had already had the period talk with my Mama and a bunch of girls at school had already gotten their periods. It was nothing special. I told my fifth-grade teacher at the time that I got it and she gave me a congratulatory response and was like, “OK, stay away from boys,” or something weird like that.
But when I got it, I was at home and I went to the bathroom to find blood in my underwear. I left the bathroom and told my Mama, who was taking a nap. She was like, “Oh OK, good! It’s finally here. Go put on the pad!” I was like, “Put on a pad? No. I want to take a frickin’ bath ’cause this is weird.” Early on, I associated it an injury like getting a cut, and I was treating it just like that. So I was like, “no, I need to clean this,” and then I put a pad on. To me, a pad was the equivalent of a bandaid.
Were you ever given the “period talk?” If so, by whom? How did it go? How did it make you feel? Given your circumstances, was it helpful?
I don’t remember what my Mama said; I just remember it was quick planning. She said something like, “All girls have periods and you will bleed once a month.” There was nothing around why I was bleeding. But to be honest, and to give her some credit, I don’t remember this shit.
At school, there was no sex ed as far as talking about our periods. They separated the boys from the girls and told the girls to stay away from the boys, to be aware of our periods, and to write our periods down in a calendar, or some bullshit like that. But I do remember the fifth-grade teacher gave her own little talk about when we were on our periods at school so that she could be aware if we needed to go to the bathroom more than usual or if we were not feeling good. She would always let us know that she had pads in her desk. She had liners in her desk too—and if we ever needed them, we could just go and get them if we didn’t want to go to the nurse’s office.
You and your mom, Cheryl Warner, started Happy Period together in 2015. What was it like to go through this experience with your mom?
Happy Period is a charity with the mission to be a catalyst for eliminating the stigma surrounding periods. We want to make periods normal and positive to talk about. In that process, we also provide products to folks that will go without them for whatever reason. If that reason is that they can’t afford period products, then we will provide these products because government assistance does not help with that. If the issue is that they are homeless or transitioning from homelessness and they still do not have the means, or someone has been displaced by a natural disaster, we split up our efforts for those things. Through partnering with brands, we provide products to anyone who has a period and cannot afford menstrual products or does not have access to them.
My Mama has 25 years of experience working with an NGO. She has worked in the nonprofit world and with social services. She manages all of the operations, where I handle all the creative.
How did your experience learning about your period influence the way you wanted to run Happy Period?
I am a free spirit and nothing bothers me as far as my body goes, and sharing my experience with my own body. I have never been freaked out by my own blood. I have never been freaked out about something that my body does or can do. I’ve always been fairly comfortable in my own skin for as long as I can remember. So I just ooze that out to other people. I just try to make it so everyone is comfortable.
I want people to feel my passion and I want to give back with purposeful work. I want people to feel a little better about their period because of me or something they learned through me. A lot of this information and knowledge I have from my own period and I’m always researching and always asking questions and sharing what I learn. You know we don’t talk about these things. Sex ed here is still stupid. It’s not real. It does not reflect on what we really need to know about our bodies. Our society has a figure it out attitude. They don’t teach us about pleasure or how our body works. They tell us not to get pregnant and not to have sex. I feel like menstrual health and education is a long term process and it influences me to run Happy Period the way that I do.
You have created a business model that makes it so easy for people to donate through an Amazon Wishlist and your website. Was this always the model or has it been adjusted as you grow?
Facebook and Instagram have just started to help charities more. I’ll keep it real—I think they were a little late to the party. You can always donate on our website. We took down GoFundMe after we successfully crowdfunded. The more opportunities for folks to donate, the better. When we learn about a new program we just add it or sign up for it. Amazon wishlist has always been there. Donating through social media platforms is really new but increasingly easy as they add and update new features.
Happy Period also has a blog called Hello, I’m Menstruating. Can you tell me a little bit about that and how this important educational piece contributes towards Happy Period’s Mission?
Our blog is a sister-site to Happy Period. We are two-pronged. One side is about providing products, the other side is eliminating the stigma. So Hello, I’m Menstruating is where that content—like our podcast, testimonies, volunteer photos, social media, and articles—lives. People can also go there to purchase our t-shirts. We have new merch coming out and all of that income goes back into the charity. It is a space for all things period.
I like to call us the “period posse” because there are a lot of people in the fight for menstrual equity. We are shaking it up so we can be more empathetic towards people who have periods. I mean, 50 percent of the population has a period so it’s kind of crazy that we are treating it like it’s this nasty thing.
Happy Period is coming up on its 5th birthday. Congratulations! What has been the biggest challenge in starting a charity that revolves around menstruation?
The challenges don’t stop. They are different every day. And it fluctuates. The hardest one right now is the pushback we get from people who are so stuck being uncomfortable. They are comfortable or content with being uncomfortable about periods, and that is not just from men. I have to talk to females too. I have to remind them that they are magical and that they didn’t die from their period. Women are literally dying because of period stigma.
In some cultures, women are shamed to menstrual huts or can’t touch or prepare food. And women are suffering from endometriosis and have crazy surgeries or hysterectomies and there are added challenges because their doctors won’t listen to them. The stigma is always the biggest challenge and it gives us more work to do. Even when providing period products, we get pushback.
I did a drop off at a school where the nurse ordered the pads for the girls and the principal was so uncomfortable that we were giving them to the students. He was weirded out because it wasn’t Kotex or Tampax and the package wasn’t traditional. Or because it was labeled as organic and he had never heard of Cora. I am like, “Dude. Calm your ass down. You don’t have to give this away, but you do have to take it from me. This is the option that is better.”
Even in shelters when we want to do workshops and teach women how to use menstrual cups, they tell us the women won’t receive that well. How can they tell me about what a woman might potentially prefer for her body, especially when it comes to her vagina?
I will never tell a woman what she should do with her body. I am so tired of that. We give out all forms of products, but we will not shame you because you still want to use a tampon. We are not calling you old school because you want to use a pad. If you want to use a cup, great! The point is that we have choices. We will not tell you what to do with your body. I get enough of that as a black woman. We want folks to know that we are inclusive, and we are about choices.
What is the one thing you wish your younger self knew about your period?
Diet. Our lives would be so much better if we knew about nutrition or diet. So many women hit me up and ask how they can better manage their cramps or hot flashes or whatever. When I ask what they eat, it’s sugar and soda and red meat and dairy. I am not shaming you for eating that. I am not a vegetarian. I love to eat everything. I am more about choices and making those choices for myself. The crazy shit is, because we were not taught to link our diet with our period, we would never make that connection. Same thing with what you’re putting in your body. A lot of women are having horrible headaches, horrible cramps, are passing the fuck out and have no reason why. And then they stick a tampon in their vagina. That tampon has been cooked in a chemical soup or the liners and pads have been cooked in a chemical soup.
People assume that because something is on the shelf it’s safe. Processed food is not good but that’s on the shelf, too and they are selling it to you. I think that is why I talk about my diet. I had a mad fibroid and I actually shrunk them because of my lifestyle change. I eliminated dairy and red meat. I’ll do a cleanse. I always eat fruit in the morning. Everybody is different, but just making a better choice with my body helps me so greatly.
You go to the gyno, and they put you on birth control, but nine times out of 10, that will make your symptoms worse. I definitely blame ignorant gynecologists putting me on birth control for why I got fibroid. I then had to do my own research. No doctor ever taught me about nutrition and how to eliminate my fibroid. They would tell me I needed surgery. That shit right there is just crazy. You do have to do your own research though. There are people out there who cannot be vegan or vegetarian. There are people out there who cannot fast, including me.
My period inspired me to make a change because I knew I could not feel close to death every single month. I used to curl into the fetal position in bed and have the type of pain where I couldn’t sit still. Now I can just feel my moon time when she is coming and I can make my preparations and then I am good in a couple of hours.
I think I want women to have better periods. We shouldn’t feel bad about our periods, especially on top of the shit we go through that the world throws at us. It makes you not like yourself and we don’t talk about that. We shouldn’t say we don’t like being girls. I want to help eliminate that. I want to make periods better so we are not living and suffering at the same time.