When Mashiyat Rahman wanted to talk about her period, she texted her circle of friends three emoji: 😢🔪💦.
The crying emoji described her mood, the knife her painful cramps, and the water droplets her heavy flow, the 22-year-old told NPR (1).
Soon Rahman will be able to type a single emoji to start a conversation about her period. A red drop-of-blood emoji, coming sometime this year (2), will give smartphone users around the globe a new way to talk openly about menstrual cycles.
Advocates suggest the emoji is the latest proof of an increasingly positive shift in attitudes around menstruation. "For years we've obsessively silenced and euphemized periods," noted Lucy Russell, head of girls' rights and youth at the international advocacy group Plan International UK (3), probably referring to the round-about nicknames for periods like the rag, Aunt Flo, that time of the month, girl flu, and so on (13). "An emoji which can express what 800 million women around the world are experiencing every month is a huge step towards normalizing periods and smashing the stigma which surrounds them.”
Plan International UK collected 55,000 signatures in a two-year #periodemoji campaign after its research showed 47% of women aged 18-34 believed a period emoji would make it easier to talk about menstruation with their partners and friends (3).
Today, candid conversations about periods are replacing generations of stigma that shrouded women’s menstruation — a normal bodily function affecting half the population — in silence.
"Society has become a lot more accepting of periods," observed Juliet Williams, a gender studies professor at the University of California-Los Angeles (4). In an interview with Teen Vogue, she credited social media and body-positivity campaigns for the changing view of menstruation (4).
The wave of acceptance and openness about women’s periods has been building for some time. In 2015, Harvard Business School grad Kiran Gandhi ran the London Marathon while free-flowing, and proudly sported a bloody stain on her crotch at the finish line (5). Months later, #JustATampon trended on Twitter as countless women and men posted selfies of themselves holding tampons to dismantle the secrecy around periods (6).
Brands too are increasingly normalizing menstruation. The Lammily doll, which is marketed to girls, now comes equipped with a "Period Party" pack, complete with tiny menstrual pad stickers and a calendar to track the doll’s cycle (7).
Earlier this year, the documentary "Period. End of Sentence," won an Academy Award for its frank illustration of menstrual stigma and inequity in India, where the film was shot (8). Nearly one-third of girls in India miss school during their periods because of inadequate menstrual supplies (9). The film showed young female entrepreneurs making and selling menstrual pads in their villages so more girls could attend school.
Meanwhile, shifting attitudes around periods have also sparked a legislative push to repeal the "tampon tax," a sales tax on menstrual supplies. Some 35 states still classify these essential items as luxury goods, according to the menstrual equity campaign "Tax Free. Period." (10). This month, California’s governor signed a bill into law making the Golden State the latest state to repeal the tampon tax (although the rollback, unfortunately, ends in 2022) (11).
Advocates have cheered these signs of progress, noting our cultural norms have come a long way from the archaic times when menstrual blood was deemed poisonous (5). But they also maintain there's still a lot of work to do. Even today, menstruating women in pockets of Southeast Asian, Africa, and South America are either barred from cooking or eating with other people for fear of contamination, or banished entirely during their periods (12).
As Russell, from Plan International UK, pointed out, a new period “emoji isn’t going to solve this, but it can help change the conversation (3).”