Erica Benamy Is Overcoming Stigma & Others' Doubts

Birth control. For so many women, those two words are part of their daily life — something so routine, they hardly even think about it. So why do those same two words carry such a stigma in our society? It's a problem that Erica Benamy, a graphic designer and one of the honorees at Bustle's 2016 Upstart Awards, wanted to solve, and she's found a way to use her passion and talent for design to help change the perception of birth control.

"Whenever I hear the conversation around contraceptives — specifically the Pill — in media, it's a really negative dialogue," Benamy tells Bustle. "So, I thought it was important to continue the conversation and make it a little more approachable for people."

As her thesis project for the Maryland Institute College of Art, Erica created a campaign that includes a zine, various items that she custom designed, and the idea and designs for an app called Pill Talk that she hopes to develop one day. Each piece — like the Let's Talk About Birth Control zine pictured below — aims to make birth control more approachable. She hopes that her zine, an update to your traditional birth control pamphlet, "make[s] it more approachable for people to pick it up and show it to their friends or family, or for people to not be embarrassed carrying it around."

Though she has already succeeded in creating this zine, making a video that shows the design and concept of Pill Talk, and selling a period- and birth control-themed product line on society6, she had to overcome some challenges to get there — including the very stigma she's been fighting against.

She recalls an early stage of her project, when she made a dictionary of birth control for one of her classes: "It had a lot of illustrations, and it was [about] birth control and menstruation and sex... and foreplay," she says. "And I just remember the faces of my classmates looking through it."

She didn't let their shock deter her. In fact, it only motivated her further. If others didn't understand her passion — for design or destigmatizing birth control — she would learn how to turn criticism into motivation. "It was just so clear to me how taboo the subject was," she says. "It was simultaneously a little bit of a roadblock, because eventually it made me feel uncomfortable how uncomfortable they were, but it also made me feel like the project I was doing was doing exactly what I wanted it to do."

"People don't feel comfortable having these dialogues, and people don't really understand a lot of it," she continues. "So the things I was making potentially continued the conversation."

That drive is also what helped Benamy persevere when others doubted her goal of turning design into not just a career, but a way to improve society as a whole.

"So many times in my life, I heard that I would never be successful making art or doing design and would never have an impact, essentially, and [that] it was a wasted degree," she says. "But because it was something I wanted to do, and I kept going, and I kept persevering and getting through it, now I feel like [...] I'm doing what I love."

Many college students strive to work in fields they're passionate about and face roadblocks, but Benamy emphasizes that they shouldn't take doubts to heart. "My advice would be to not be afraid and to keep trying," she says, and later adds: "I just think not back[ing] down and giving up is important."

For her, this means that birth control is just the beginning. In fact, the cause that first helped her find a link between design and social issues was voting rights. She worked with her college's student-run voting organization, Don't You Want To, which gave her "the inspiration to use design as a means of effecting change" and allowed her to see "how far design can go to actually help society." Now, she hopes to return to that issue, possibly by redesigning voting cards to be more approachable as well.

Whatever Benamy does next, it will undoubtedly be something that raises some eyebrows but ultimately brings positive change. "I've learned that I generally am happiest when I feel like I'm addressing a problem or finding a more creative solution within the work that I'm doing," she says. "I think that I get a lot of happiness from talking about things that most people don't want to talk about."

As her PillTalk project proves, sometimes the conversations that make people uncomfortable are exactly the conversations we need to be having.

Images: Courtesy of Erica Benamy (3); Design: Caroline Wurtzel / Bustle

Click here for more information about Bustle's 2016 Upstart Awards!