In the second-floor girls' restroom at Bronx Prep Middle School in New York, there's a sign taped to the back of the toilet stall doors. It's a guide on how to "properly dispose feminine products." On the list? "Make sure that no one views or handles product."
"It's not even saying the word pad. It just says product!" explains Kathaleen Restitullo, 13. "Just, like, don't let anyone see that you are on your period."
But Kathaleen and six of her fellow female eighth-graders decided they're tired of NOT talking about periods. So they made a podcast about it — called Sssh! Periods — and it's the middle school grand prize winner in the first-ever NPR Student Podcast Challenge.
"We wanted to shine a light on this subject because it's something that's kind of hidden away," says Raizel Febles, 14. "You kind of are ashamed for having it, which sucks because it's something so natural and so normal."
The seven girls (Raizel Febles, Kathaleen Restitullo, Kassy Abad, Caroline Abreu, Jasmin Acosta, Ashley Amankwah and Litzy Encarnacion) met every Thursday after school this spring to write, record and edit their podcast.
For them, the conversation about periods flowed naturally. "It was easy to record it," says Caroline Abreu, 13. "It was like the mic wasn't even there. We were just having a conversation."
They would commiserate about trying to hide a tampon in their tight jean pockets, or bleeding through their pants. ("I'm literally the queen of bleeding out," says Caroline. "It's not usually my fault; it's because I can't go to the bathroom during class.")
When they were making the podcast, the girls say, some of their teachers would make a face or get squirmy when they learned the topic, so the girls constantly moved to different classrooms, trying to find quiet spaces where they could talk openly without making staff members uncomfortable.
Their middle school, nestled among apartment buildings in the South Bronx, about 2 miles from Yankee Stadium, is not the most period-friendly place, they say.
"Sixty-seven percent of female students polled at Bronx Prep Middle School said that they the feel uncomfortable discussing their periods at school because it's not anybody's business," Jasmin Acosta says in the podcast. "Thirty-three percent of students said periods were a dirty topic. Young girls carry this stigma into adulthood."
"We're still in middle school at this point," Litzy Encarnacion says in the podcast, "but the problem gets even larger when we take it out in the community, when it's grown women trying to support their families."
In their podcast, they talk about the many code words for period and the stress of the "pink tax" (that's when products geared toward women are more expensive).
Not all of the girls were always this open about the topic. "When I heard we were gonna talk about periods, at first I was disgusted and uncomfortable because that's just how I am," says Kassy Abad. "But once we got to talk about it, and I learned that what happens to me happens to all these other girls, it made me feel more comfortable. It made me feel safe."
Kathaleen agrees. Once they got started, she says, and the more they learned about the stigma around periods, "we just wanted to keep talking about it. It's not a state secret or anything."
When Shehtaz Huq, who teaches sixth-grade English, suggested the girls work on a podcast for the NPR challenge, most of them had never heard of a podcast. A few assumed podcasts would be boring. After all, wasn't it just the "people talking on the radio, trying to interrupt the good music?"
But once they realized they'd get to be the ones talking — their voices and thoughts and ideas — they were hooked.
"I got the NPR app and I started to listen to some of their podcasts," says Kathaleen. "I was just like, 'Hey, I'm doing a podcast, might as well know what a podcast is!' "
Now that they've won, they say they hope their podcast sends a message to other young girls that period talk is great. And when they grow up and have kids of their own, they're hoping it won't be a big deal to say, "I'm on my period!" or to openly borrow a tampon or pad from a friend in class.
Maybe schools will even supply girls' restrooms with free pads and tampons. That's just one of the many suggestions they have for how to make their own middle school better.
Here's another: If the the boys learned about periods, too, it would be way less awkward. "When we have those yearly talks about hygiene and stuff, they always separate the girls and the boys," Litzy explains. "We're never informed about the opposite sex."
And this is all on top of the stress and confusion of just being 13- and 14-year-olds, a time the girls describe as being "lost and insecure." Plus, they say, people don't ask middle-schoolers what they think.
"I'm not even going to lie, though. That was my first reaction when we were doing this," says Litzy. "No one's gonna listen to us because we're still young. They probably think that we don't know what we're talking about."
Then they won, beating out nearly 6,000 entries from all 50 states and Washington, D.C.
When their teacher gathered them in the hall and announced the big news, the girls screamed and hugged and cried. Litzy was shocked: "I was like, 'Whoa!' So they actually do listen."
NOEL KING, HOST:
Earlier this year, NPR invited students across the country to create a podcast about anything they wanted and to enter it in NPR's Student Podcast Challenge. Teachers helped them. We got 6,000 entries. This morning, we have one of our two winners. It's from a group of eighth-grade girls in the Bronx. From Bronx Prep Middle School, NPR's Elissa Nadworny has the story.
ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: It took the girls a few meetings to figure out what they wanted to talk about.
ASHLEY AMANKWAH: At first, we thought we were going to do immigration or talk about the LGBTQ.
CAROLINE ABREU: A few of us were on our periods at the time...
ASHLEY: Yeah, we were.
CAROLINE: And so we were talking about, like - you were like, oh, my God. This happened today.
KASSY ABAD: We were all just ranting. And then we were like, why don't we just talk about that?
NADWORNY: Without realizing it, they had landed on a winning idea. They called their podcast "Sssh! Periods," the creation of seven 13- and 14-year-olds - middle-schoolers who come from different friend groups and different backgrounds. Their families are from places like Ghana, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. And together, on Thursdays after school, they researched, wrote, recorded and edited their podcast. Here's students Jasmin Acosta and Litzy Encarnacion.
(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "SSSH! PERIODS")
JASMIN ACOSTA: Sixty-seven percent of female students polled at Bronx Prep Middle School said that they feel uncomfortable discussing their periods at school because it's not anybody's business.
LITZY ENCARNACION: We're still in middle school at this point, but the problem gets even larger when we take it out into the community, when it's grown women trying to support their families.
NADWORNY: The podcast gets into the stigma of talking about periods, the many code words we use for it and the stress of the pink tax - that's when products geared towards women are more expensive.
(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "SSSH! PERIODS")
JASMIN: Low-income women struggle to meet basic necessities because they don't have the resources to take care of themselves and their bodies.
NADWORNY: The girls drew on their own experience with periods. Eighth-grade podcaster Ashley Amankwah explains.
ASHLEY: The boys, especially in our class - it's like they always make fun of periods. Even the teachers, they feel something wrong about periods.
NADWORNY: When they were making the podcast, the girls say some of their teachers would make a face or get squirmy when they learned about their topic. When they'd meet after school, they'd be constantly moving to different classrooms, trying to find quiet spaces where they could openly talk about trying to hide a tampon in their tight jean pockets or bleeding through their pants, all without making the staff feel uncomfortable. Their middle school, nestled among apartment buildings in the South Bronx, is not the most period-friendly place, they say. Thirteen-year-old Kathaleen Restitullo brings us to the girls bathroom...
KATHALEEN RESTITULLO: Yeah. It's here.
NADWORNY: ...And reads from a flyer taped to a stall door.
KATHALEEN: OK. It says (reading) how to properly dispose feminine products.
The first one's - do make sure no one views or handles products. It's not even saying the word pad. It just says product. Just, like, don't let anyone see that you are on your period.
NADWORNY: Fourteen-year-old Raizel Febles doesn't want to hide her period anymore.
RAIZEL FEBLES: Like, oh, you're on your period, but you're not really supposed to mention it. You're supposed to keep it a secret. And you kind of are shamed for having it, which sucks because it's something so natural and so normal. And it happens to every woman.
NADWORNY: There's even a schoolwide code word so girls don't have to say pad or tampon. Instead, they have to call it marshmallow.
We heard something about something called, like, marshmallow.
CAROLINE: Oh, my God. Yes.
CAROLINE: I will speak of this. If we want a pad and we don't have it, we have to go to the main office and we have to ask for a marshmallow. It shouldn't be like, oh - (whispering) I need a marshmallow or I need a pad.
It should just be like, I need a pad. I'm on my period.
NADWORNY: Caroline Abreu and Raizel Febles say the podcast has been a sort of liberation - finally, a group of girls where it's not a big deal to leak out your pad, and it's celebrated when you ask to borrow a tampon. It took a bit, says Kassy Abad. At first, talking about periods really made her feel uncomfortable. But then she learned...
KASSY: What happens to me happens to all these girls, too. It made me feel more comfortable, made me be like, oh, wow. Caroline bled through. I bled through before. And it makes me feel more, like, safe.
NADWORNY: It's something amazing when you're like, wow, I'm really not alone in this. This is something that I maybe felt weird about, and now I don't have to. Like, what a relief.
CAROLINE: That's how - that's why we made this podcast because we wanted to make it a normal subject.
LITZY: Exactly. That...
NADWORNY: And these girls - they have some idea about how to change things in their school. Here's Litzy Encarnacion.
LITZY: First of all, when we have those yearly talks about hygiene and stuff, they always separate the girls and the boys. The girls talk about periods and vaginal hygiene. The boys talk about whatever they talk about. But we're never informed about the opposite sex. But I think that if they are informed about periods, it would be less awkward.
NADWORNY: They also think the girls bathroom should have free pads and tampons. Their middle school principal says he's open to their suggestions. And the girls say, really, anything to make middle school a tad bit easier.
What is it like to be 13?
CAROLINE: Insecurities, insecurities, insecurities. It's all I'm going to have to say. Like, it's at an all-time high, I think.
NADWORNY: Plus, Caroline says...
CAROLINE: Being a female 13-year-old is a whole 'nother thing because it's like, we're put on a stage. And sometimes it really breaks us down.
NADWORNY: Litzy says people don't ask 13-year-olds what they think.
LITZY: I'm not even going to lie, though. That was actually my first reaction when we started doing this. Like, no one's going to listen to us because we're still young. And they probably think that we don't know what we're talking about.
NADWORNY: And then a few weeks ago, their teacher, Shehtaz Huq, gathered them together in the hall for a big announcement. She recorded it on her phone.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SHEHTAZ HUQ: So ladies, here's the news. Listen. So there were 5,700 entries from middle and high school. And the results came in, and we won middle school.
NADWORNY: There was screaming and hugging and lots of tears.
JASMIN: She made me cry. Ms. Huq was just crying and I was like, Ms. Huq, don't make me cry. Like, you're going to get me cry.
RAIZEL: There was just so much in that moment when we found out we won. And we were sitting...
NADWORNY: And Litzy, who thought - eh, we're just 13, no one asks our opinion...
LITZY: I was like, whoa. So they actually do listen.
LITZY: I was like, wow. The best part that we won this is that we are people of color from the Bronx. I feel like that was just the best part of all of this...
(SOUNDBITE OF FINGER SNAPPING)
LITZY: ...That now you have a bunch of people of color that are all female that are shining light to your city.
ASHLEY: And the fact that we're all very passionate about this topic and we're not just doing it just to win, but we want to do it to spread, like, you know, knowledge is really, like, good. And I'm so happy.
(SOUNDBITE OF FINGER SNAPPING)
NADWORNY: As we wind down, the girls ask if they can end the interview with the word period. It's a thing now, they say. So let me get out of the way.
ASHLEY AMANKWAH, CAROLINE ABREU, JASMIN ACOSTA, KASSY ABAD, KATHALEEN RESTITULLO, LITZY ENCARNACION AND RAIZEL FEBLES: We are the ladies of Bronx Prep Middle School - period.
NADWORNY: Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.