In this two-part article, we talk to Zoe Chan from Free Periods HK. Part One explores Zoe’s experience working to increase awareness on safe periods and importance of body autonomy in Hong Kong. Part Two discusses period poverty in Hong Kong, and how Zoe’s work helps low-income and grassroots families.
Since 2014, Zoe’s been working with NGOs, social workers and companies (like LUÜNA!). Together with these key actors, Zoe has been reaching out to educate and empower more women and girls in Hong Kong, with regards to their body autonomy, and the importance of understanding their body well. But, given where Zoe works, it shouldn’t come as a big surprise she’s encountered some obstacles along the way. Situated in Asia, and intersected by different people and cultures from around the world, at its core, Hong Kong still finds itself grounded by conservative Chinese cultural beliefs, especially towards certain topics. Sadly, menstruation and sex education remains one of the topics ‘bubble-wrapped’ by said conservative attitudes. Hence, whilst discussing menstruation in Hong Kong, Zoe expresses: “it’s very subtle. People don’t talk about it”.
A main reason for this subtlety are the myths surrounding menstruation. From a cultural standpoint, these myths pose as a barrier affecting perception of menstruation. “Menstrual blood is seen as something that is dirty”, says Zoe. Menstruation may also be regarded as something that brings bad luck, if following traditional attitudes. Zoe thus works to break this mentality, and educate more women and girls that menstrual blood isn’t necessarily that dirty, and that negative. By introducing women and girls to reusable menstrual products, Zoe hopes to have more people engage with their period in a more intimate and positive manner, and realize menstruation is simply a natural process.
Where can we buy this shirt?!
Having the opportunity to encounter one’s menstrual blood in such close proximity, Zoe says this allows women and girls to realize “menstruation isn’t really a dirty thing!”. By having to wash the reusable (whether this be menstrual cups, or reusable cloth pads), and care for the reusable, to Zoe, it is this encounter that enables us to better understand our period, and come into “such close proximity with our body”. So, if anything, through using reusables, and being so close with one’s menstrual blood, “you begin to realize the smell from your period isn’t because your period is something that’s dirty. It’s because of the bacteria in your menstrual blood mixing with the air, for a prolonged period of time. And this is usually worse in the summertime, because it’s so hot!”.
Also, instead of thinking of menstruation as something that brings bad luck, Zoe says the use of reusables acts as conversational topics too. Through Zoe’s experience using reusables, and embarking on the journey with her friends – they experienced a new kind of sharing and excitement amongst the friendship group: “I’ve never tried this before!” or “because of this product, I’ve had new experiences with my body!”.
But it’s not just Zoe who’s experienced the conversational bonus to using reusables. During her workshops, many women express: “I’ve never noticed the color of my period blood, and I’ve never been in such close proximity with this part of my body”, says Zoe. And from there, the topic of being more in-tune, and intimate with one’s body becomes the topic of conversation. No longer does conversation about menstruation circle around how bad it is, but the conversation shifts more towards the new experience of using reusables, and how it’s empowering – “you find yourself more familiar with your body”. Zoe expands further: “by converting to reusables, coming into such close proximity with your body, and having such an interesting and new encounter with your period – these users often share their experience with their friends, and advocate and educate others on the existence and use of reusables. If something is good, why don’t you share it with your friends too? It’s like they’re ambassadors, talking about things to do with our bodies, for others to know more.”.
"you find yourself more familiar with your body"
Zoe, our founder Olivia and some other badass women at our #NoMoreSecrets event against period poverty
Family attitudes have also acted as an obstacle Zoe faces, especially in affecting reception of menstrual cups in Hong Kong. Zoe says: “a big problem is people aren’t aware of what exactly their virginity or hymen is, and you just believe what your family says. But, what they say, and what they know about virginity and the hymen may not necessarily be true”. Because of the circulation of these myths, many believe using menstrual cups (and tampons) can break a girl or woman's hymen. Zoe stresses: “products should not be something that affects or breaks your virginity, or regarded as parallel to having engaged in sexual encounters and experiences”. Specifically, Zoe says: “hymens are not something that can scientifically identify if someone has had sexual encounters or not – some females are born without”. The importance of addressing myths regarding virginity and the hymen is critical, when further advocating for the use of menstrual cups.
Instead of fearing the use of menstrual cups, Zoe argues its use can also be quite liberating and free; “you realize such product gives us more freedom and comfort, and is less restricting on the activities you can or can’t partake in, whilst on your period”. Zoe also says through using menstrual cups, and reusables in general, “you begin to have a higher degree of body autonomy, and become more in-tune with your body. The use of reusables prompts us to reflect on why we’re using it, the process of using it, and if we feel we know our body better.”
Zoe at our #NoMoreSecrets event, spilling some truth about our hymens (spoiler: they can't identify our virginity status!!)
But how do reusables allow us to know our body better? Menstrual blood and cramps are good indicators of a woman or girl’s body condition. So, “if you have intense cramps, this could be a signal of too much stress, not enough sleep, or something wrong with your body condition; it’s a signal that you should be more aware of your health and wellbeing”. In light of the working environment in Hong Kong, and how we don’t often take good care of our bodies, perhaps using reusables could be seen as a lifestyle change, allowing us to know ourselves better, and have better body autonomy.
Zoe’s work therefore tries to provide people with the knowledge to make informed decisions with regards to their body, and tackle existing myths and taboos in Hong Kong surrounding menstruation. By reaching out to more people, and rendering information about menstruation accessible and comprehensible, Zoe works to stress the importance of being aware of our bodies. Through Zoe’s efforts, it could be said she’s trying to break the taboo of mystery and myths in Hong Kong.
Quick Q&A on Free Periods HK
A: When did Free Periods HK come about?
Z: 2014, when I first encountered menstrual cups and reusable pads in Hong Kong, and realized not a lot of people talked about it. I had just ordered my first menstrual cup online with a group of friends, and we were so excited to try it out, and share our experience!
A: Who’s on the Free Periods HK team?
Z: It’s really mainly me! But my partner helps with shipping products out, to people who purchase from our website. And when I need help with graphic design, and things like that, then those tasks get outsourced to friends. But in terms of full-time staff, then it’s just me!
A: What do you want to happen in the future in Hong Kong?
Z: From an education standpoint, for big brands to not dominate the market, and be the only ones going into schools for workshops and speeches. It would be lovely to see more eco-friendly/reusable brands go into schools too! And from an accessibility standpoint, for reusables to be something we can purchase in any supermarket in Hong Kong, and not just a specific few!
A: What does ‘sisterhood’ mean to you?
Z: To respect diversity, and embrace differences!
With Zoe, we've created the buy-a-cup, give-a-cup initiative. We've promised to donate a period cup to Free Periods HK for every cup we sell :)
Check out our period cup & help us fight period poverty!