Chella Quint is a woman on a mission. Passionate about challenging taboos around menstruation, she has been at the forefront of period activism for many years, coining the now-global #periodpositive campaign and working tirelessly to not only get folks talking openly and honestly about menstruation, but to keep the discussions queer-friendly and trans-inclusive.
You may recognise Chella from her zine Adventures in Menstruating, which has been going for 11 years now. You might have picked up one of her period-stain keyrings at a maker fair. Or you may have caught her 5-star stand-up show at the Edinburgh Fringe this summer. She’s also a designer, researcher, illustrator, teacher/facilitator, advisor to schools and charities, and the creator of right-on educational resources! In a column dedicated to folks who are making careers out of their passions, Chella is an amazing example of how you can bring together many different skills and interests and focus them in one clear direction.
In this in-depth interview, Chella explains how #periodpositive was born and what motivates her activism. She also discusses frankly the very real challenges of time management as a neuroatypical person, and the age-old conundrum that is trying to make a living from stuff you’d much rather be giving away for free.
Chella Quint, comedian, designer, and founder of #periodpositive
Hi Chella! It looks like you do a lot of different things! Can you give us a brief overview of your work?
I’m a freelancer with a lot of different intersecting types of work, and that they intersect means I can apply one skill to a different topic, or use another talent as a tool in a different piece of work, or translate it into another language! I’m mostly a comedian, designer, artist, illustrator, zinester, education researcher, maker, drama and improv workshop leader, science communicator, sex educator, presenter, writer and performer… and, like I said, usually more than one of those things at a time.
I work most often on a project I don’t usually get paid for, unless I manage to get some funding by working in one of my other skills. It’s called the #periodpositive project, which is a campaign that has grown and evolved over the past ten years.
I hire stage managers, technicians and production assistants for events and use grant funding or ticket sales to cover their costs, and I get things I design made by local makers, printers, directors, and publishers, and someone to help me file my taxes, but otherwise it’s just me.
Let’s talk about your campaign, #periodpositive! What’s your mission with this campaign, and what’s it all about?
#periodpositive is a campaign to radically transform menstruation education and encourage others to do the same, so that’s it’s accessible, inclusive, and challenges the current paradigm through teaching media literacy, sustainable menstruation management solutions, and including menstruators and non-menstrutors of all ages, abilities and genders.
When I coined the term, the phrase began as a simple idea and way of explaining that you didn’t have to have periods or love them to enjoy my workshops, zines and performances, and grew into an ethos of how to talk openly and honestly about menstruation. The zine and show, Adventures in Menstruating, focus on the way disposable menstrual product marketers have used their influence and shame-based marketing language and imagery in ads and packaging to pretty much control how we talk about periods, and send branded resources to schools to keep kids brand-loyal and using disposables. Funny, those resources never mention reusables like menstrual cups or cloth pads…
When I first came up with the phrase, and on all my materials, I have always stated that the ethos of #periodpositive is to ensure there are unbranded resources available, that there’s no assumption or promotion of shame or secrecy, that reusable menstrual products should be discussed for economic and ecological reasons, and that anyone should feel they know enough about periods to talk about them if they need to, teach about them if they’re supposed to, or react pretty nonchalantly if the topic comes up anyway.
Even though I’m not a natural business person, I promote the work through lots of free shareable resources, social media provocations, live art installations and bits of craftivism, including my Adventures in Menstruating zine, free lesson plans, and probably most well known, the STAINS™ spoof fashion line. By spoofing a fashion industry model, I’ve actually taken on the trappings of that business for the joke to work, and STAINS™ has become real – with people actually wanting the clothes and accessories.
All my work, including #periodpositive, is queer inclusive. Sometimes people using the hashtag or the phrase weren’t sticking to that ethos, or were only talking about disposable menstrual products, or excluding boys and male teachers from the learning, or using my logo without permission, and so I decided to trademark the phrase and logo to protect it and ensure it kept this meaning as far as possible. I didn’t want to protect it and like… keep it on a shelf for best – by protecting it I mean using it as an award like the Fairtrade logo. I’m now offering it as a secondary logo or award to be used by willing partners whose ethos matches mine, to create a larger lobbying bloc for better and more inclusive menstruation education and to challenge menstrual taboos in the media discourse.
Once I decided that, just after completing my Master’s, I applied to my university with the idea and won a Prove It Award, which was a tiny prize toward helping me purchase the trademarks. I trademarked the brand name and logo, bought the domains (and the ones for positive period to avoid confusion) and registered the hashtag with Twubs. I’m psyched that I invented a thing, and I don’t wish to make money from it, I just want to try to retain a little influence over it with the support of fellow taboo-busters so we can make some changes around here.
That’s the most businessy thing I’ve done, and it was expensive, but a good decision I think.
How would you describe your approach to business? What personal qualities inform your approach?
I have spent most of the time I’ve worked on Adventures in Menstruating zine and #periodpositive picking apart the poor ethics of the marketing and advertising from multinational corporations. I am not a fan of capitalism and that has made it ideologically hard for me to reconcile being a ‘business person’! I can see all artists have to be, to a certain extent, just because if you don’t make a lot of money and can’t hire a staff, you have to do most of the other jobs yourself, and if you’re making things you need to sell them. Working in education where everybody chipped in and did loads of different jobs was great and helped prepare me for it; creating events on the DIY scene is pretty fantastic for communal working and being resourceful and that helped too, and training in improvisation has really helped most of all with all of that. I sometimes struggle with black-and-white thinking, and it is really hard for me to ask to be paid for things I simply want to share anyway. I understand that my work and skills have value, and I’m learning to apply for larger grants and do skill swaps. So my approach to business is… reluctant. By choosing to take my campaign outside the queer DIY community to make a wider impact though, I have to speak the language of the people that work in mainstream commerce, and I’m very slowly learning how.
I mostly play, and I think play and finding joy are good starting points. In a lot of my writing and design work I create characters by personifying inanimate objects. A few years ago I wrote a zine and did a live comedy and spoken word show about love letters between planets. I’ve started a cartoon series to teach early menstruators about periods, called the Period Positive Pals. They’re all menstrual products with personalities and they explain how to use them through simple explanations and silly puns to make the parents laugh. And to help teachers include reusable menstrual products instead of just defaulting to the phrase ‘pads and tampons’, I invented a dance – it’s like a cross between a mambo and a conga line – the Menstrual Product Mambo – you can learn it yourself – it’s very silly… but far less silly than not knowing what to do when a kid asks you about periods!
I have asked a few friends what other business skills I have despite myself, and they’ve said the following things:
- I have infectious enthusiasm and I naturally get people on side using humour and general keenness.
- I’m resourceful and can find ways to work on a tight budget.
- I protect and promote my brand – I make sure the work has integrity, and I care more about that than monetary profit.
- Turning queries into clients – I offer a lot of free help and sometimes ask questions about other people’s projects that lead to be being invited in to formally help.
What does a typical day look like for you? Do you have a routine? What is your workspace like?
I have several kinds of ‘typical day’. If I’m doing research for the Gender Respect Project, I’m hotdesking in Sheffield city centre and will probably get a burrito for lunch at the best burrito place in the UK.
At the Edinburgh Fringe last August, a typical day would be flyering for my show and giving out free STAINS™ stains, booking and delivering free workshops, meeting up with my stage manager, performing my show, checking my props, and counting the money in my bucket (that’s how the living expenses get covered – or partly covered – on the Free Fringe).
In the spring or autumn, if I’m performing in an arts or science festival, I’m developing materials and delivering talks or workshops, or tabling at a maker faire. Maker events are great ways to talk about menstruation with unusual audiences. Maker faires traditionally attract older cis guys who like electronics and tech. They’re not the target audience for disposable menstrual product adverts, but it’s great to see how engaged they get by just sitting down and fiddling with some laser cutting or needle nosed pliers to make a STAINS™ keyring. For some visitors to my stall, it’s the first menstrual stain they ever had, and they’re usually delighted to talk about it and really open to discussing taboos and education and advertising, and looking at things from a new perspective. It was also a great way to engage whole families with little kids – talking about menstruation should totally begin at home, but a lot of people don’t know where to start, or have their own internalised hang-ups and follow that instinct to hide it or say ‘I’ll tell you when you’re older’.
In the winter I’m sometimes doing the odd stand up gig and working with local clients, and mostly writing grant applications. My work is going to be a lot harder to fund if/when we leave the EU and I am so upset about the referendum result – for so many reasons.
When did you know that this was what you wanted to do? And what were your early goals, your first steps?
After studying dramatic writing at NYU, I was a big Shakespeare nerd and came to the UK to study theatre and train to become a drama teacher. My first job was in a school where the head of department and I both felt very strongly that drama was a tool for social justice, and we supported the pupils to explore a lot of issue-based work. I was also working with the city youth theatre and volunteering with the local LGBT youth group, and got a lot of extra training in youth work and sex and relationships education through these avenues.
To wind down in the evenings and take the edge off of a quite emotionally intensive job, I started to make my own zines and comedy shows, and got invited to take them on DIY tours to squats, zine fairs and Ladyfest festivals in places like Berlin and Malmö and Dublin during the school holidays. I coined the term ‘period positive’ in 2006 to describe the show and the workshops I was offering, to explain that they were like ‘body positive’ and sex positive’ – you didn’t have to love your period, or even have one, to participate or enjoy the show. The zines and the live sketches were all about adbusting and craftivism, with some in depth ad analysis and takedowns of various companies’ marketing strategies. I really enjoyed doing this, got lots of contributions of articles for each issue, and the word spread about my zine. I remember once I was invited to give a talk about media literacy and menstrual product marketing at the London School of Economics, but I couldn’t get there in time after school. I asked my head teacher, who looked at me incredulously and said, “Why on earth do they want you to talk at the London School of Economics?”
A couple of years later, I had to stay late for an event that was running over and I was going to miss the copy shop closing, and the assistant head said I could use the school photocopier if I wanted. I had to sheepishly admit that I was photocopying pictures of toilets for a design challenge workshop I was delivering the next day on those annoyingly cumbersome UK public bathroom bins. They were intrigued, and didn’t sack me for weirdness, so that was good. There was no denying I wasn’t afraid to talk about taboo subjects confidently, though. When the school implemented a PSHE (Personal, Social, Health and Economics Education) program, I was asked to teach for it and, soon after, I was encouraged to apply to be head of department.
The school strongly encouraged me to participate in the part time master’s program scheme, where it was free until the final module. I loved it. After meeting Professor Chris Bobel, who is now the President of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research (SMCR), when she interviewed me for her book about menstrual activism, I realised I could combine my day job with my extracurricular punk rock pursuits. For my dissertation, I researched ways to take my activism and performance techniques into the classroom as lesson activities for challenging menstrual taboos, and empowering kids to become more literate about the language and imagery of menstruation.
My worlds were merging. I started feeling more confident in what I was doing, and more valued. Another professor came up to me at a gig and said she wanted to assign my zine as one of her course books, and asked me how to go about doing a bulk order in another country. I had no idea and I think I just said if she didn’t sell them she could make a few copies for her students. At this point, I was starting to get invitations to speak locally, at the local sexual health research centre, at the university, at the town hall on International Women’s Day. When I was invited to do a local TEDx talk about shame in menstrual product advertising, I didn’t hesitate to ask for the day off. The talk got loads of views when it was posted on Youtube, and I was invited to be one of the keynote performers at the SMCR conference. I started taking my hobby a lot more seriously.
Meanwhile, the school was about to become an academy, and I didn’t feel comfortable working for a private corporation – not one I hadn’t chosen – it was weird that one was going to sort of… grow and morph around us. I’m not a fan of privatisation and I believe schools should be publicly run. So I decided to take an unpaid sabbatical to finish my dissertation, just to be sure it was what I wanted, and after the year was up, I left. I became a teacher researcher with the Gender Respect Project to continue my Master’s research, and registered as a sole trader.
As for childhood aspirations… Ok, when I was six, I wanted to be the President of the United States. Now that I live in the UK, that is becoming less and less likely, and to be fair, I am not entirely sure I would want the job anymore anyway. When I was 8 through the end of school, I fluctuated between the following career aspirations: stand up comedian, artist, designer, writer, actor and rock star. I do play a comedy guitar song at the end of my show, but have happily rotated through all the other jobs on the list and most of them are on my current business card. I hear it’s called a portfolio career. I like it.
What makes you spring out of bed in the morning? What’s the best thing about the work you do?
I love creating things. I seem to have a knack for using art, design and comedy to explain stuff that’s either complicated or scary or makes people uncomfortable. I have a way of looking at things that helps me find a different angle that lets people in. I really like helping people, I love helping friends, audiences and fellow performers find joy in small or ordinary things, and I try to work to make things fairer for people.
And the worst?
Working for free isn’t sustainable, and right now, hiring a business manager isn’t possible.
What are the key challenges you face in your work? What are your tactics for overcoming these?
Another challenge is that sometimes people think I am something I’m not. They assume I am spiritual, or only associate menstruation with women or femininity, or that I think all periods are all amazing for everyone all the time. None of that is me. I am into the practical side of menstruation management and in finding the deeper ways to understand how a century of marketing has impacted menstruators and the way it affects how we embody menstrual attitudes and navigate the world of reproductive health, sexuality, consent and pleasure. I try to have individual chats with people, and be consistent on social media about how I feel, and if someone approaches me looking for spiritual or womanhood-focused menstruation stuff I refer them to people who have expertise on that.
How do you approach time management?
I use a great app called Teux Deux which I recommend – it lets you prioritise tasks and it’s simple and pretty. I also frequently draw my own calendars when I’m coming up to a busy time with a lot of gigs or a tour – physically accounting for each little square helps me keep track of what’s happening when. I use coloured post-it notes in an A2 notebook to map out future plans and strategies. At uni I learned about a force field analysis – (a diagram with arrows pointing down toward your goal to show what pressures were working against you and up from below to list things supporting you), and to label them with CIA (things you can change, influence or have to accept), and a SWOT analysis – (filling in a grid of a project’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats). I thought it was complete baloney at first but actually do these things now and they help!
Beyond this stuff, though, I struggle. I realised while completing my MEd and then moving from full time work to freelance that I was having a harder time than some of my friends making that transition. No matter how hard I tried, I tended to either hyperfocus, and work for hours on one thing until it’s near enough to perfect, or bounce around – trying to do a little bit of each task and getting a bit stuck and not sure which one to prioritise. During my MA I asked for more support with this, and started finding out more about adult diagnoses of autism and ADHD. I’d like to do a PhD next year in using drama and art in menstruation education, and talking about this stuff openly with them has been daunting but made me realise how much support is out there, particularly for students.
I thought I used to be excellent at meeting deadlines. Now I have found that without a rigid schedule like a school timetable keeping me in line, it turns out I was never very good at the executive function stuff around prioritising – I was just good at being well behaved and polite and meeting other people’s very routine deadlines! I was starting to notice that the ‘you’ll get the hang of it soon’ stuff just wasn’t ringing true for me, and I felt like it was genuinely something I was going to need help to find coping strategies for so I could achieve all the cool stuff my brain was thinking up. After getting expert advice, I’ve had to accept that it’s not something my brain does well, and all in all there are a lot of other things that my brain does very well, so it’s just a slightly frustrating trade-off. I am in the process of getting extra help with this and although I feel a little awkward talking about it, I’m learning not to be cross about not being able to do something, and getting help so I can get back to focusing on the things I am good at.
And what about work-life balance? Has your social life been impacted by your work?
When I was teaching, I didn’t sleep much! I worked all day, marked all evening, and did art and comedy at night and on weekends to take the edge off. Now I have a little more free time to see friends and family, and a much more flexible schedule. I have filled a lot more of that time up with other projects, though. I have gotten involved with supporting organised politics and did some campaigning for the referendum. I now run an improv troupe called Faffing About and a monthly comedy night called Sweet FA, and a periodical casual jam night called Quimprov, to encourage more women and queers and people who are both to join the improv community.
Can you tell us about your financial situation when you started out? Did you have start up costs?
When I was teaching, I spend my spare cash on nice things that would help me relax after long hours from teaching, and had higher living expenses to pay than I do now, so I didn’t really have savings. Now, on freelance design and performance contracts, I usually earn just enough to cover my bills and have a tiny bit left over for nice treats like stationery and visits to the cinema, but sometimes I don’t quite.
I try never to turn down an opportunity to do some of the #periodpositive work, and I’ve missed some opportunities because I couldn’t afford trainfare or a conference pass. I spend a lot of my time developing menstruation education resource ideas, and want to put those out there. I find it increasingly difficult to keep up with the admin of speaker bookings. I love the opportunities I get, and I need to find the right person to work with — someone between a business manager, PA, promoter, contract negotiator and Chief Prioritisor. When I find that person or people, the hope is that I can focus on the design and vision side of the work, and stop doing things I’m bad at doing for myself.
I’ve finally accepted that I need this help, and that I’m not naturally inclined to self-promotion. Admitting to this in a very self-promotional interview about my business skills is very hard, actually, and I feel a bit vulnerable, but I think it’s worth sharing my strengths and weaknesses and being open about it in case there is someone else out there who feels like me. I’m actually learning a lot from this process!
Is your business sustainable now? How do you feel about the money side of ‘following your arrow’?
The #periodpositive resources are deliberately free at the point of use because they’re competing with major tampon brands who send branded resources to schools, which means what I’m doing is not sustainable yet, and I’m now looking at ways to support this project as it grows. I’ve been advising organisations with national reach for a couple of years now, and I’ve recently been talking with MPs and councilors about education policy changes. This all takes time, and it’s time away from the paid freelance performing and design work. I volunteer with a lot of schools, charities and shelters who simply can’t afford to book me, and some where there’s one teacher who’s keen but a senior leadership team who doesn’t want to prioritise spending money on menstruation education. That’s the stigma talking though. There’s been a real shift in attitudes this past year, and I want to keep pushing at that shift and do some proper physics on it and make sure that people get what they need now, when they are starting to realise they want it.
I am actually about to set up a Patreon account so that people who already believe in what I’m doing or have benefited from challenging menstrual taboos themselves can support me to grow the project and get the support I need. I’m also surveying potential supporters to find out how much of an admin fee they would find reasonable to support the admin of sharing the #periodpositive logo with them and supporting the logistics of the meetings of a panel of award deciders.
Where would you like to see yourself in five, ten years’ time?
I would like to have established a menstruation education curriculum model, with lesson resources for all ages and settings, tested it, trained other trainers and teachers in how to teach it, created some video resources, children’s books (they’re already drafted! It’s simply a matter of finding the time!), and put together some workbooks. I’d like to make sure it’s free at the point of use so it’s more desirable than branded resources, and I’d like the #periodpositive logo to appear on all kinds of better designed and researched education, management and marketing materials to do with menstruation.
Eventually, I’d like this to be obsolete – every good campaign should have that as a goal, right? One day there will be no more menstrual taboos. And then I’ll turn my attention to something else, perhaps in reproductive justice or public health areas, or maybe something else entirely.
How do you market your business?
The #periodpositive hashtag is going places, and STAINS™ necklaces seem to pop up in all sorts of unexpected ways lately! I do a lot of live shows and talks, because with a taboo topic like menstruation I find that one-to-one conversations, or at least one to – maybe – 50?, work best for including and encouraging people to think about how they were taught, and to bring them on board to strive for something better. I think I need to do a lot more though – I would like to have more leverage to make a bigger impact. I want to be having conversations with decision makers at high levels.
What’s the most valuable tool in your kit?
My sense of humour. I don’t go anywhere without it.
That’s closely followed by my improv training – my first improv troupe’s motto was ‘failure is an option!’ – the mindset of being willing to say ‘Yes and…’ instead of ‘No!’ or ‘Yes, but…’ is something I’ve chosen to learn, and I use it all the time.
I should also say that my laptop and my phone are extensions of my brain, and although I toiled away for years using various inexpensive and built-by-friends computers slowly running a lot of freeware until they each eventually died and went to obsolete hardware heaven, one of the best productivity increasing decisions I made was to invest in kit from a well known sleekly designed computer, tablet and phone brand.
How does being LGBTQ impact on your business (if at all)?
I include all genders in my work on menstruation, and sometimes hit barriers with those who stick to a strict gender binary and attempt to enforce it on others. I have found a few good ways to challenge that through compassionate conversations and thoughtful questioning, usually with good results, but sometimes I just get fed up with people who would rather alienate marginalised folks than make a little room. I feel it’s my duty a queer person and an active member of the community to include all queer people in my work, and bring up trans and non-binary menstruators in meetings and when advising on education policy or, say, a charity’s ethos, and ensure the discourse includes all menstruators. I attended the LGBT STEMinar last year, and plan to do so again this year. The poster I presented last year, Queeriods: A Flow Chart, is making the rounds at the minute and getting a lot of praise for its advice on inclusion of trans and non-binary menstruators.
What three websites, blogs, books or people do you rate for business advice or ideas about your work?
I love Tina Roth Eisenberg’s Swiss Miss blog , and her projects Teux Deux (as above) , Tattly, and Creative Mornings. Her aesthetic and her work ethic really resonate with what I like, how I am and how I’d like to be.
What’s your hot tip for queer women who want to start their own business?
Don’t be afraid to ask for help, assert your right to reasonable adjustments, and definitely don’t be afraid to turn down or call out unhelpful help or patronising behaviour. Enjoy your mistakes, enjoy your successes, and have fun.