Type to search

Home Flashbox News & Updates

This TikToker Wants the Internet to Like Periods. She Needs People to Like Her First

Nadya Okamoto, CEO and co-founder of the Gen-Z brand August, is on a mission to destigmatize periods — but her raw videos make some ill at ease

CT Jones Nov 24, 2022

Nadya Okamoto puts content creation first — and it's taking a toll: "I made videos about forgetting to shower and about self care, and then I realized I was only showering to make content. It’s dangerous.” Photo: Mercedes Zapata

Even if you don’t know Nadya Okamoto‘s name, there’s a good chance if you’re on TikTok, you’ve seen her work, or more specifically, intimate details about her life, career, and menstrual cycle. Okamoto wants to change how the world thinks about periods — but it’s a bloody fight. 

Okamoto, 24, has been a CEOa Harvard graduate, a published author, a L’Oreal Women of Worth honoree, a TEDxPortland speaker, a Teen Vogue 21 under 21, and founder of one of the biggest global youth-run non profits. But it might be hard for people to reconcile those titles with Okamoto’s online presence. Her videos, mostly posted on TikTok, are marked by an abject rawness. Okamoto casually speaks into the camera as she puts in tampons off screen, flashes her bloody pads on Lives, and gives out menstrual products at live events dressed as a pad- and lingerie-clad fairy. Even with an activist message, Okamoto’s in-your-face approach and past controversies in the menstrual community has created an ever-increasing tension between her rising star and her desperate hope for an eventual career out of the spotlight. Social media made Okamoto. It also might be what breaks her. 

“I came into my career at 16, where I thought that the only way to grow anything was was to say yes to every fucking opportunity,” Okamoto says. “To build my platform as big as possible. And I don’t think that it ever occurred to me to say, ‘Hey, let’s take a moment and figure out when we’re not going to take that attention.’”

But attention isn’t something Okamoto can disavow in her line of work. Even with an account as mission-forward as her own, the creator says it’s hard to avoid that a major part of her job requires her to build a brand that supports an entire company. In 2020, she co-founded August with then-Princeton student Nick Jain, with the goal to both manufacture eco-friendly pads and tampons and create a network of period education for Gen-Z. But even as much of Okamto’s work is based in activism, it can’t be separated from its main goal: eyes, and lots of them. 

“The nature of the internet is that we live in an attention economy,” Okamoto tells Rolling Stone from her Chinatown  office. She’s sitting in a quiet meeting room built into the corner of the open floor-plan, and is answering emails, moving meetings, and saving sounds for TikTok — somehow all at the same time. Her calendar, when she flits to it, is a dazzling display of colors, a workday dissected into meetings every hour.  The walls are decorated in small batches of themed artwork, including an August-branded tufted rug, and pop art iconography of women. Wearing leggings, a sweatshirt, and tennis shoes with a TEDx logo, Okamoto has two yellow-star pimple patches stuck to her face and is sporting an August-themed manicure. Even her outfit is working. She moves between scheduling on her phone and lovingly pointing out her favorite pieces of art, all of which were hand painted by her sister Issa in middle school. 

Nadya Okamoto posing with August period products. Her outspoken period education online has garnered her some negative feedback. LUCY MCDONALD*

For Okamoto’s personal sanity, it helps that the creation side of her job doesn’t feel like work to her yet. She says she makes and saves upwards of 50 TikTok drafts a day, and demonstrates making at least five so fast it’s dizzying. Okamoto created her TikTok account in 2020, and less than two years later, has gained over 4 million followers — with an engagement rate some celebrities might dream of. She’s done this largely organically,  but turning genuine moments into content opportunities — showering or self care routines — has created an internal struggle. In Okamoto’s life, the phone eats first. 

“It’s so bad for my mental health,” Okamoto says. “I’ve struggled with figuring out my concept of self, with feeling worthwhile, because I post everything. I made videos about forgetting to shower and about self care, and then I realized I was only showering to make content. It’s dangerous.”

THE NATURE OF SOCIAL media creates a gap between reality and people’s public persona. But perhaps no one is more invested in discovering the real person behind Okamoto than Okamoto herself. When Okamoto was nine years old, she, her mom, and her two sisters left their lives in New York City and moved to Portland, Oregon. She describes the start of a life where she felt severe anxiety, not just for her siblings but for the welfare of the entire family. Money was tight. And at nine years old, her family’s expectations and her mother’s own Harvard and Columbia degrees made college more than a hope. Okamoto says it was the only option. 

In 2014, Okamoto launched PERIOD, a youth-led nonprofit focused on providing free period products for those who couldn’t afford them. The creator publicly credits the start of PERIOD to her own experiences with housing instability and Portland’s homeless community. “Where my bus stop was in downtown Portland, there was a  huge homelessness issue,” Okamoto says. “And I spent so much time waiting and talking to the women there. I remember hearing so much conversation and being asked for period products. And it hit me that even at that time when my family was thinking about food, and credit cards were getting declined, I’d never had to worry about where my period products were coming from.”

Also See  Eight K-drama OSTs of 2022 You Must Listen To

At 17, Okamoto’s started fundraising for PERIOD, applied for grants, and created a board mostly out of friends’ parents and helpful neighbors. She describes a slapdash operation that was raw but uplifted by social media. In 2015, Okamoto, then-executive director for PERIOD, was accepted on early admission to Harvard University. From the moment she got to campus, her drive wasn’t just apparent — it was everywhere. 

During her first year, she ran and lost a campaign for a seat on the Cambridge City Council on a platform of undergraduate student representation. That winter break, she wrote Period Power: A Manifesto for the Menstrual Movement.  At the end of her sophomore year, Okamoto took a leave of absence to help PERIOD grow, substantially increasing the number of chapters in the program. But while the continued achievements gave Okamoto an outward appearance of success, it validated a new and destructive cycle of hustling: Okamoto’s girl-boss era. She was constantly worried about keeping up, and said she was hospitalized several times for exhaustion and dehydration.

“Before the 2016 election, there was a push for young women in politics and organizing. The message was young people are gonna save the world. It was also 2014 hustle culture, never sleeping, always working,” Okamoto says,  “At that time I was running away from so many things. I was processing abusive relationships. And a lot of my obsession with work was [supported] by the messages I was seeing: Working until you die is the only way to get out of your situation.”

That drive didn’t just end with her — it extended to her entire family. Her sister, Issa Okamoto, tells Rolling Stone that even during Nadya’s stint at Harvard, Okamoto was extremely involved in Issa’s schooling and future plans — even flying back to home twice a month to discuss her extracurriculars and any slipping grades, all while masking how poorly she was handling her stress and anxiety. 

“Where my determination comes from is Nadya being a little bit of a tiger mom to me,” Issa says. “I didn’t actually know much about what she was doing. Like I showed up to her TEDx talk and I was really, really proud. But I was there when we ran in the kitchen and Nadya was just on the floor from exhaustion. It was really difficult to see.”

Sophia Tzeng, Okamoto’s mother, says that when she moved the family to Portland, she was focused on healing. While that decision allowed her to restart her life, she now realizes put added pressure on Nadya to act as a parent while she was a child herself. The result, she says, was several hospitalizations for Nadya. It’s why now, even though she considers all of her daughters extremely successful, she’s prouder about their journeys to prioritize their mental health. 

“It’s not the worldly success I celebrate,” she says. “It’s that they’re healthy. Our family knows how to fucking put it out when we’re like dying. But what we didn’t know was how to be healthy, to have happy relationships, and to really take care of ourselves.”

Starting in 2020, the mainstream progress of the Black Lives Matter movement inspired major reforms and protests in industries across America. And the menstrual space wasn’t exempt — except this time, the establishment was Okamoto. On June 22, 2022, Black NYU student Ileri Jaiyeoba accused Okamoto of “exploiting the intellectual labor,” of hundreds of student organizers of color. Jaiyeoba said Okamoto used her brand to stop other student organizers from registering their own menstrual movements as individual non-profits, and purposefully worked to dissolve already established student organizations. Okamoto was especially criticized for her origin story: specifically her branding as a formerly homeless teen. While Okamoto says she and her family often spent months at a time living with friends — which is the legal definition of being without a home — critics claimed Okamoto was using the connotations of the term to imply she and her family were living on the street. While much of the criticism revolved around PERIOD’s fund-distribution policies and student contracts, a majority centered on Okamoto public personification of the brand. 

Jaiyeoba claimed Okamoto wasn’t in the fight for the cause — she was in it for herself. “Her obsession with being the ‘first’ is what erases the work of those who paved the path towards the menstrual rights movement and an end towards period poverty,” Jaiyeoba wrote, in a post that was publicly supported or confirmed by at least 10 student organizers. (Jaiyeoba did not respond to a request for comment from Rolling Stone.) At the time, Okamoto issued a long apology, saying PERIOD used a popular nonprofit chapter model popularized by Black Lives Matter and the Women’s March. In established CEO fashion, she went through what she calls months of training on transformative justice, lessons in anti-Blackness, and personally wrote letters to those who said they felt belittled by her work. 

Also See  #RSDailyMusic: Here’s What We’re Listening to Today

But the damage was already done. Less than a month later, PERIOD severed ties from Okamoto, effectively removing the creator from her driving mission. But Okamoto doesn’t think she got canceled. She tells Rolling Stone she was held accountable. 

“In 2020, sharing space was something I was very ignorant of,” Okamoto says carefully. Her hands, which have continually flown over her phone throughout the day, now tap slightly on the table. “I think I was ignorant of the fine line [between] volunteerism and compensation. And I don’t think I was aware of the privilege that I had coming into the space, that I was getting a platform Black activists weren’t even being offered.”

Before 2020, Okamoto’s relationship with privilege existed in the periphery. As an Asian-American woman, she often struggled with her own existence as a woman of color, something she always pushed back at as a case of imposter syndrome. But faced with an influx of criticism she considered valid, Okamoto said she was forced to rethink her role in the menstrual community — and even considered quitting all together. 

“Many people think that in order to fully repair harm I should have not come back into the period space,” she says. “And for a while I didn’t want to. But I believe so strongly in this mission. When all of this happened, [August] put our fundraising on hold. We gave some checks back. We did not know if we were gonna do this. But finally I just came to a place where I was like, ‘I’m the best person to start this company.’

Okamoto is extremely vocal on social media about her struggles with mental health, especially how she handles past trauma and its current side effects in her life — but it doesn’t win her much popularity online. 

“For my videos that go viral, most of the people are commenting, ‘You’re disgusting. This is disgusting. You’re foul. This is a disrespect to all women,” Okamoto says. “I love responding to those with ‘Let’s talk about why you contradicted yourself by saying it’s disgusting, or ‘You’re proving that there’s a stigma.’ I’ve never had a day where I think what I’m doing is unnecessary.”

Trolls Okamoto can handle. But it’s when people try to fabricate fault in her that she starts to question how long she can remain so exposed online. A fear of accusation has left Okamoto with the worst tendencies — sometimes scrolling or searching her name for hours when she’s alone. If this were a regular job, Okamoto says she would have left it behind years ago. But as it is, she doesn’t know if the emotional distress her detractors bring is worth it. Two weeks ago, an anonymous account accused Okamoto of grooming underaged TikTok users. Okamoto fervently denied the accusations, and the anonymous account (which has since deleted the posts) later said they made the accusation up because Okamoto was such a popular account. 

“I had this response where I just want it to all go away and not wake up.  I just want to be done with it,” Okamoto says. “In plain and simple terms, my psychiatrists will call that suicidal ideation. But I always have to clarify, I’m not thinking about hurting myself. But when I get overwhelmed like this and it just feels like it’s coming from all angles, the underlying hope I have is that I just want it to all go away. I just want everything to be silent, and I just want to go to sleep forever.”

Recently, Okamoto has had a public falling out with her sister Ameya. The two had reconnected after not speaking for years, during which point Ameya became a regular fixture on Okamoto’s socials. But Ameya’s decision to go “no contact” has inspired a new wave of contempt in Okamoto’s mentions, which the creator has chosen to ignore. (Ameya did not return Rolling Stones requests for comment.) “I could respond and I could post but at the heart of it, my younger sister feels genuinely hurt by our relationship,” says Okamoto. “That’s something I have to acknowledge.”

As an entrepreneur, Okamoto isn’t just selling period products. She’s trying — in her TikToks, at her startup, in her online presence — to sell herself on a new future. Okamoto has spent the past two years desperately clawing her way back to helping people. But as her public persona continues to grow, Okamoto is also aware that her level of achievement can’t afford her the privacy and peace she craves. And as much as her titles and positions and diagnoses have enured people to her cause, their end results have begun to pull the CEO and creator in a dozen different directions. She’ll have to pick one soon. 

“I could [quit]” she says. “But it’s such a double-edged sword. I know the reason I’ve grown so quickly is because my content works. I don’t wanna say my goal is ‘if I could just help one girl,’ because then I wouldn’t be on social media.  I’m on TikTok because I think that I can help millions of people. And I have.”

This story has been updated to include a reference to Okamoto’s recent falling out with her sister.

From Rolling Stone US.