Break the Rules Like ... Chelsea Stone

Not all Wonder Women wear capes, and not all Unladylike role models need to sit in the C-suite to spark change. We want to introduce y'all to rad women and nonbinary folks we admire. They'll offer up pointers on how we all can #breaktheruleslike they do and help them make the world a better place. If you have a role model to shout out, send hot tips to 

Chelsea and her research partner, Cynthia Xinyue Chen, interviewed about 30 Chinese and American women to better understand period stigma. The results are in a thesis they’re presenting this month.

Chelsea and her research partner, Cynthia Xinyue Chen, interviewed about 30 Chinese and American women to better understand period stigma. The results are in a thesis they’re presenting this month.

1. Introduce yourself: Who are you, where are you from and what do you do?

My name's Chelsea Stone. I live in Atlanta, but I'm originally from upstate New York. I've just returned from spending the better part of a decade in China. Ostensibly I work in marketing, but I also spend a great deal of time trying to separate my sense of self from what I do to earn money, because people are so much more than that. People are fascinating! I want to understand what drives us, what scares us, what angers us, what makes us happy. That impulse and the experience of living in a foreign country led me to this project on stigma — why are we repulsed by certain things? And why are some cultures repulsed while others are not?

2. When did you first realize this was the right path for you?

By my fifth year in China. People pay a lot of lip service to the value of living abroad in order to expand your mind, but it's not that simple to really engage with difference. When confronted with difference, the easy route is to treat that difference as silly, or something that annoys you or repels you. I think a lot of foreigners living in China experience "foreignness" that way. They tend to spend most of their time with other foreigners, and together they might enjoy the differences, laughing at the novelty of a foreign place and foreign people and their "silly" ways, but ultimately these foreigners don't engage with the differences they encounter in any meaningful way, let alone respect those differences. We continue to believe our own ways of thinking and doing things are the best way. It's not even a conscious process — when faced with difference, most of us dismiss it and stick to our default, to whatever way we were conditioned to view the world.

I was guilty of this in China. It wasn't until I was in a situation where I could make a lot of Chinese friends and speak their native language with them that I was able to engage with difference in a more meaningful way, in a way that not only allowed me to develop respect but also made me question why I do what I do and believe what I believe. My Chinese friends and I had a lot of differences — and the one that stuck out to me the most were the ways we talked about menstruation.

3. What’s unladylike about you and what you do?

I talk about menstruation with women and men. I don't hide pads or tampons in my pocket or up my sleeve — I just carry them to the bathroom with me for all to see. I complain to people when I have painful cramps. I learned all this from my Chinese friends.

One huge difference between Chinese women and American women is how open and honest Chinese women are about their periods. I was always taught to be discreet. I learned to wrap my used pads up in several layers of toilet tissue, like the mere sight of menstrual blood might infect someone glancing into the garbage bin. I've always felt dirty while menstruating, like I couldn't shower enough times in the day. To my Chinese friends, it was just a thing that women do — and it's a good thing that they do, because in most cases, menstruation is a hallmark of health and vitality in a woman. Why would there be any dirtiness or shame attached to something like that?

4. Which of your heroes or role models would you immortalize in bronze?

bell hooks. Feminism Is for Everybody should be mandatory reading for every man, woman and child.

5. What was your feminist aha moment?

In 2017, myself and one of my fellow researchers, Cynthia Xinyue Chen, started talking to other Chinese women about their periods. I wasn't sure what we would learn just from sitting and talking about periods for a couple hours with other women.

I had long been skeptical of the progress of feminism in China. I assumed they were way behind us in the US. The Chinese we spoke to overwhelmingly believed that men and women are naturally different. I had always chafed at this popular opinion among so many of my Chinese friends. In America, us women have been restrained and restricted because we've been told that we're not well-suited for this or that job, or that we're predisposed to be mothers or caretakers. Desperate to fight our way into the public sphere, we denied our differences, we suppressed our femininity. We burned bras, we chose careers over children or intimate relationships, we traded in dresses for pantsuits. We scapegoated all things gendered "feminine" — instead of identifying the real enemy, patriarchy — and we've even assumed those things gendered "masculine" because that's what we associate with power and success. We've fought our way into public spheres, but we've done very little to change these institutions. We focus our energy on climbing up these hierarchies instead of dismantling them. And when we're climbing, when we're just playing the game by the rules set by patriarchy, we're only perpetuating the problems of capitalism, white supremacy and patriarchy.

I listened to and watched the way Chinese women celebrate being a woman. Feminism based on the premise that there are inherent differences between men and women has its own shortcomings, but I had spent my first five years in China focused on those shortcomings and refusing to consider the benefits. When I finally started listening to Chinese women talk about their periods, a uniquely feminine experience, I realized how content and confident a woman could feel when she is fully comfortable being a woman. Unfortunately, I — and so many American women like me — have worked so hard to prove our equality to men that we've stigmatized our own femininity — even as vital a process as menstruation.

6. What’s the best advice you’ve received? The worst?

The best? My Chinese friends told me to avoid spicy or rich foods while I'm on my period. Adjusting my diet while menstruating has been a huge help in avoiding period pains.

The worst? That going to a private liberal arts college for 60k a year would be good for my future.

7. What’s bringing you joy right now — or at least keeping you sane?

My three cats.

8. Aside from keys/wallet/phone, what do you never leave home without?

Lip balm.

9. How can unladies help you and/or your mission?

Question everything, read constantly, listen always. I don't think China's particular brand of feminism or America's brand of feminism or any country's can adequately address the challenges presented by the patriarchy. Raising my own feminist consciousness has been an incredible challenge, and largely a matter of luck and accident.

How can we encourage feminist consciousness raising in others while we are still actively working on our own? To work on your own, make genuine, concerted efforts to engage with people different from yourself, to take them seriously and listen to them earnestly. Respect and explore difference, don't dismiss it or fetishize it. Keep reading — especially those canonical books teachers pushed and you half-heartedly skimmed for the test. You can gain a lot more from them as an adult than you could have as a kid.

To encourage others to raise their own feminist consciousness, remember that we are all products of our place and time, that empathy is a prerequisite to relationship-building, and that relationship-building is a prerequisite to changing hearts and minds. It really is amazing the transformational conversations you can have as your relationship and trust with someone else deepens. It also doesn't hurt to keep a copy of Feminism Is for Everybody on your phone to share with someone new whenever the opportunity arises.

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