New Period Emoji Perpetuates Stigma and Silence
For the most part, it’s fair to say your phone will be getting an upgrade in inclusivity. A total of 230 new emojis will be added to the global keyboard, many of which focus on representation of those with disabilities, gender-inclusive couples, and more. And while the accessibility themed and gender-fluid icons should be acknowledged as a step forward in terms of representation and self-expression, there is one addition to the emoji lineup that will hinder the conversation rather than help it: the period emoji.
A period emoji seems like a good idea. The concept was championed after the non-profit organization Plan International UK found that 47 percent of women aged 18-25 said a period emoji would help them talk about menstruation with their friends and partners. Aiming to provide that assistance, Plan International UK designed five options—all of which are specific to the natural monthly cycle women experience—and invited the public to vote on their favorite. Nearly 55,000 people showed support for the idea, and ultimately, period panties received the most votes.
However, Unicode Consortium, the group that standardizes and approves new emojis, rejected the design. The sterile, single blood droplet—which could signify anything from a medical procedure to a murder plot—was the compromise they allowed.
It’s undoubtedly true that society still stigmatizes periods globally. In Kenya, girls are forced to miss up to six weeks of school because their access to menstrual products isn’t sufficient. In India, women aren’t allowed to partake in rituals or be in the kitchen during menstruation because they’re viewed as “unclean.” This perception that women's purity is somehow tarnished during their period has even led to the death of a Nepali woman after she was exiled to a menstruation hut.
In the Western world, the stigmatization has harmed women economically and socially. Most states in the United States place a “luxury tax” on menstrual products, and for some, it perpetuates homelessness as women are forced to choose between buying a meal or buying a pad or tampon. Furthermore, 48 percent of UK girls aged 14-21 feel embarrassed by their period according to a 2017 survey, which makes breaking the taboo even more difficult.
But when you consider that the strength of the stigma derives from the myth that a menstrual cycle makes women unclean and that we should therefore be ashamed of our bodies, the sterility and nonspecificity of the proposed emoji seems counterproductive. By rejecting Plan International UK’s original design—which struck a balance between being non-graphic and still intentional—Unicode has contributed to the problem. They are shying away from the conversation they’re supposedly enabling women to reclaim. If we’re going to have a period symbol, we should actually, you know, have a period symbol.
And still, I have to question whether that’s enough. Even if we did get the period panties instead of this random drop of blood that’s virtually interchangeable with spilled wine or Kool-aid, is that really going to be a significant step towards ending period shaming? Or is it just enabling us to further avoid talking about our experience with actual words?
If you’re already embarrassed to talk to your significant other or your friends about your period, is it any less cringe-inducing to send a drop of blood via text instead of saying “I’m on my period”? Probably not. It’s a visual euphemism, essentially the same as calling it “Aunt Flow.” A polite way of side-stepping the reality of your body. By using the period emoji—by confronting truth without words—we’re sanitizing our expression because calling it what it is has been deemed “gross” or something that shouldn’t be brought up in polite conversation without first apologizing for it.
And around and around we go on the carousel of silence.
Yes, emojis are considered a universal language. The hieroglyphics of the 21st century, even. But giving people a way to avoid having a conversation about periods isn’t going to help normalize a conversation about periods. It’s just heightening our discretion. We have tasked technology with a job of saying something we don’t want to say. But if we want any change, we need to have that conversation ourselves instead of relying on an emoji to get us through the discomfort.
Emojis enable self-expression, certainly. But if we’re going to get serious about eliminating the taboo surrounding periods, we should be able to embrace both the unapologetic visual depiction and the conversation head-on. For now, this red drop is just one more in a bucket of ineffectuality.