It won’t eliminate stigma on its own. But if a blood drop emoji helps start important conversations, then that’s worth celebrating, says Stylist’s digital women’s editor Moya Crockett.
One of the most embarrassing moments of my life happened when I was 13. My friends and I were sitting on our school’s playing field, and a male pal was rummaging through my bag for a pen. Suddenly, he let out a shriek of exhilarated disgust and flung a small white square into the centre of the group. Horrified, I realised I’d forgotten all about the sanitary pads I kept tucked into the inside pocket of my bag.
“Eurgh!” he shouted. “Moya’s got her period!” The boys roared with laughter; the girls giggled uncomfortably, clearly aware that if I could be humiliated in this way, so could they. Face burning, I grabbed the pad and shoved it back into my bag, muttering that I wasn’t on my period; I just kept stuff in my bag in case. For some reason, the thought of people thinking I was menstruating right at that second was too mortifying to bear.
Today, I wouldn’t be remotely concerned if someone thought I was on my period, but the memory of that embarrassment still scalds. And across the UK, many people still feel a sense of shame around menstruation. According to a 2017 report by Plan International UK, more than half (56%) of 14-year-old girls feel embarrassed about their period, while just one in five young women aged 14-21 feel comfortable mentioning it to school teachers or staff. In Northern Ireland, girls used words such as “ashamed”, “afraid” and “terrifying” when discussing menstruation. Stigma also contributes to period poverty, creating a culture of silence where people feel unable to ask for help buying sanitary products.
All of this highlights the fact that period stigma is real, and needs to be dismantled. So I was cheered to read that a new period emoji is set to be introduced by the Unicode Consortium, following a campaign by Plan International UK that received support from more than 55,000 people.
The charity hopes that the blood drop emoji will reduce some of the stigma that still exists around menstruation. It launched the campaign after conducting a survey of women aged 18 to 34, which revealed found that almost half (47%) believed a period emoji would make it easier to talk about menstruation with female friends and partners.
Lucy Russell, head of girls rights and youth at Plan International UK, acknowledged that “an emoji isn’t going to solve [the problem of period stigma], but it can help change the conversation. Ending the shame around periods begins with talking about it.”
“For years we’ve obsessively silenced and euphemised periods,” Russell continued. “As experts in girls’ rights, we know that this has a negative impact on girls; girls feel embarrassed to talk about their periods, they’re missing out, and they can suffer health implications as a consequence.
“The inclusion of an emoji which can express what 800 million women around the world are experiencing every month is a huge step towards normalising periods and smashing the stigma which surrounds them.”
Carmen Barlow, digital strategy and development manager at Plan International UK, highlighted the importance of emoji as a means of communication.
“Emojis play a crucial role in our digital and emotional vocabulary, transcending cultural and country barriers,” Barlow said. “A period emoji can help normalise periods in everyday conversation.
“For an organisation like Unicode to recognise that menstruation should be represented in this new global language is a huge step towards breaking down a global culture of shame around periods.”
The global aspect of menstruation taboos is important to emphasise, because for every teenager experiencing shame about their period in the UK, there are countless other people around the world for whom menstruation is a dangerous and alienating experience. According to a 2018 report by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), shame, stigma and misinformation about menstruation pose a threat to the human rights of women and girls in East and Southern Africa, making them vulnerable to gender discrimination, child marriage, exclusion, violence, poverty and untreated health problems.
A 2016 study published in the British Medical Journal, meanwhile, showed that the majority of girls in India are not allowed to enter religious shrines or touch food in the kitchen when they are menstruating. And just days ago, a teenage girl died in Nepal after being banished to a ‘menstruation hut’ – despite the practice having been outlawed in 2017.
It’s true that the taboo around menstruation won’t be eliminated by a period emoji alone. But it’s also true that the only way to get rid of shame is to talk openly, honestly and regularly about the stigmatised subject. And if a period emoji helps some people do just that – well, then that’s bloody brilliant.
Images: Chang Duong/Unsplash, Plan International UK, Getty Images