It’s been raining in Paris for almost three weeks when Natalia Vodianova signs on to Zoom in mid-May, but she’s clinging tight to the ethereal glow that has made her a world-renowned supermodel—and has given her the platform to do something with it. Even cast in fading gray light and blurred by finicky WiFi, her resolve radiates from the screen: She really, really wants to talk about periods.
Born in the Soviet Union, the 39-year-old has always cared about, and fretted over, the dangerous influence of shame. Her younger sister, Oksana, was born with autism, “so shame and stigma is something that really makes my blood boil—really just any kind of discrimination,” she says. “Coming from what once was the Soviet Union, I was brainwashed, in a way, to think that certain ways are the right ways.”
Especially as a woman, she wasn’t even fully aware of how much shame she was shouldering until she became an adult. When her modeling career took off in her 20s, she found herself traveling around the globe, staying in luxury accommodations, and still hiding any period products she used in hotel bathrooms. If she leaked overnight, she would wash it up immediately, terrified of the housekeepers discovering a stain. “I’m like, this is insane—and I’m a privileged woman traveling around. Imagine that for a girl living in poverty who actually doesn’t have access, for example, to buy pads,” she says.
But Vodianova’s menstruation frustrations didn’t solidify into activism until she made her first tech investment with the period tracking app Flo. As she used the app herself and spoke frequently with its founders, she realized the shame around women’s reproductive health followed women everywhere, no matter their country or social class. “There’s a lot of anonymous conversations going on in Flo,” she says. “Girls who were just expressing their gratitude to the platform because they felt empowered. They felt educated. They had access to information that they couldn’t share with anybody.”
Then she posted an Instagram photo with a pad. It was a publicity stunt, really—she was supporting a film called Pad Man, about a man in India who manufactured pads for women and educated them against stigma. To spread awareness of the picture, Vodianova was asked to post a selfie holding up a sanitary napkin—a clean one, fresh out of the packaging. “And I got more comments than I ever had. But most of them were comments of hate,” she says.
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The outsized reactions of disgust and fury to the innocuous image of a pad snapped Vodianova into focus. She realized this was a monumental issue of misinformation, and it was coming from supposedly educated people. There was work to be done here.
In the coming years, she’d go on to found a video series called “Let’s Talk About it. Period.,” and join forces with with the United Nations Population Fund, the UN’s sexual and reproductive health agency, as one of its Goodwill Ambassadors.
“The truth is this is the basis of women’s rights,” Vodianova says. “It’s the basis of their wellbeing. If we do not address this part of their lives, then everything else just kind of falls apart. And especially talking about women in crisis, women living in poverty, and women in need.”
Now, she’s working with UNFPA to distribute “dignity kits” to women and girls in conflict zones—last year, 59 countries received 1.4 million kits. These backpacks include disposable menstrual pads, a reusable menstrual pad set, washing powder, bath soap, a pair of dark underwear, a flashlight (no batteries necessary), a comb, and a toothbrush and toothpaste. Those interested in helping the cause can fund a dignity kit for only $15.
“Period products shouldn’t be a luxury, right?” Vodianova says, referring to the frustration of the luxury tax that has plagued period products for years, making them additionally unaffordable as well as stigmatized. “They are essentials. Because women don’t choose to bleed…We somehow hide it, and we’re kind of like, ‘Oh, it’s okay. That’s my problem.’ It’s the world’s problem. Because half of the population goes through it.”
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