When Mashiyat Rahman, 22, texts her friends about her period, she sends them the “crying” emoji to describe her mood, the “knife” emoji to describe painful cramps and the “sweat” emoji — which looks like water droplets — to illustrate a heavy flow.
But there’s never been a specific emoji that she could use to represent menstruation — until now. The Unicode Consortium, the organization that decides which symbols get to be emojis, released its 2019 additions this week.
A “drop of blood” emoji has been added to the mix. According to Unicode, the symbol may be used to signify “menstruation” as well as “blood donations” and “medicine.” It should be available on many smartphones in the second half of the year, Unicode said.
While many menstrual health activists are excited about the new emoji, some have reservations about the design.
“Being able to express ourselves using this emoji could make it easier to talk about menstruation,” says Rahman, who runs a menstrual health organization in Bangladesh. “Even though it’s a small step, it’s one of many we should take to break down stigma.”
The emoji didn’t just pop up overnight. The international group Plan International UK, which advocates for children’s rights and girls’ rights — including reducing menstrual stigma in the developing world — has been fighting for what they’ve dubbed the #periodemoji over the past two years.
It’s not uncommon for nonprofits to lobby for emojis. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (which is a funder of this blog) proposed a mosquito emoji to help raise awareness for mosquito-borne diseases like dengue and malaria in 2017. It became an emoji in 2018.
“Emojis play a crucial role in our digital and emotional vocabulary, transcending cultural and country barriers. A period emoji can help normalize periods in everyday conversation,” said Carmen Barlow, digital strategy and development manager at Plan International UK, in a statement.
In 2017, the group started a petition to make the period emoji a thing. The group came up with different designs — a pad with a blood stain, a calendar with blood drops and underwear with blood droplets, for example — and asked people to vote for them.
Plan UK’s petition garnered 54,600 signatures. And most of the supporters voted for the underwear with the blood droplets. But Unicode did not accept the design.
When asked why they rejected Plan UK’s original period design in 2017, Unicode did not answer the question directly but president and co-founder Mark Davis responded by email: “Emoji proposals are accepted based on the strength of the proposal alone and are not impacted by petitions and lobbying.”
Then in September 2018, Plan UK teamed up with NHS Blood and Transplant, the U.K. government’s blood and organ donations service, and submitted a new proposal for a blood drop emoji. Unicode selected it as an official emoji in February.
Menstrual advocates agree. “I think it’s fantastic,” says Marni Sommer, a menstrual health researcher and a professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. “It continues the process that many of us have been working on: normalizing the conversation around periods.”
Rahman can already see how she can use the emoji in infographics and digital presentations and in a new menstruation education app she’s working on. She is the head of a group called Resurgence Bangladesh, which aims to break stereotypes around menstruation by hosting workshops that teach girls, boys and their families about reproductive health in urban and rural slums around Dhaka.
She says most of the girls she works with — including those in rural settings — have access to mobile phones. “The emojis aren’t just a Western thing,” she says. “Middle-school and high school children here use their phones a lot — and I can see how they can use it in texting and communicating.”
Yet some researchers are annoyed that the new emoji also represents blood. “It’s not specifically menstrual fluid,” says Chris Bobel, a menstrual health researcher and author of a new book called The Managed Body: Developing Girls and Menstrual Health in the Global South. “It’s multipurpose — could be used for blood transfusions, nosebleeds.”
On Twitter, women shared what they wished the period icon could look like instead.
Still, it doesn’t dampen Bobel’s excitement for the emoji. “Change is a slow erosion,” she says. “I’m cheering for it.”