Period Emojis: Destigmatizing Periods or Just More Coded Language?
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Period Emojis: Destigmatizing Periods or Just More Coded Language?

by Lisa F.
Period Emojis: Destigmatizing Periods or Just More Coded Language?
Image: Bodyform/SCA

Recently, we learned about Bodyform's "femoji" campaign petitioning Unicode to add a set of period-themed emojis to their lexicon. The petition says this will encourage those who may be uncomfortable talking about their periods express themselves more freely and ultimately break down taboos. While we always want to support efforts that seek to normalize periods, and agree that visual communication tools like emojis can influence & shape culture, a few of us felt conflicted about a few aspects of this particular campaign.

From what I can tell, the MAKERS team popularized the term “femoji” with their own campaign in early 2015. When Apple updated their emoji set to include a more diverse range of skin tones, MAKERS issued the challenge to also expand the roles and activities that emojis meant to represent women could be engaged in. If the male emoji could row a boat, play basketball, and choose from a variety of different professions, why couldn’t the female emoji do the same? Always asks these same questions in their recent "Girl Emojis" video as part of their #LikeAGirl ad campaign.

While fighting for gender justice in the emoji sphere might seem kind of trivial in the grand scheme of things, some studies estimate that girls send over 1 BILLION emojis every day. So, if there are opportunities to make this emerging global language more equitable, in ways that affirm girls and give them a way to push back at the societal limitations placed on them, we should definitely pursue them.

Buuuuuut it feels like Bodyform’s period-themed iteration on this idea falls short in a few important ways that may actually compromise their end goal.

In the proposed set of 6 period emojis, your choices include: crampy, bloated, spotty, and total PMS meltdown. These options, while absolutely real and valid for many people with periods, feel pretty limited (and limiting) to me. They seem to effectively reduce people with periods to a kind of clichéd Cathy cartoon version of themselves; sad & suffering, leaving little room for users to imagine or express an alternative. Of course I totally understand that no defined set of emojis could ever adequately convey all the different ways we feel about & during our periods. Even still, the specificity of these representations feel restrictive. I want to see other possibilities.

The campaign also uses gender-specific language throughout and, in doing so, upholds cisnormativity and further perpetuates the belief that all and only women menstruate. I wrote about this in 2011, but it bears repeating. This messaging and perspective marginalizes non-menstruating women, and excludes trans men & nonbinary people with periods who could participate in & potentially benefit from initiatives like this.

In 2016, we need to continue the work of exploring new and better ways to talk about periods. We can apply a feminist analysis and acknowledge that menstrual stigma is deeply rooted in misogyny without falling into the trap of biological essentialism and trans erasure. A simple shift in the campaign's language would be a meaningful way to begin to advance the conversation in a more inclusive direction. Instead of addressing all menstruators as "women", try "people with periods" instead - this includes women who have periods without invalidating those who don’t or leaving other menstruating people out.

Finally, why are all of the emojis pink? Is pink code for white (or light) skin? The choice to designate emojis "for women" by making them pink seems pretty reductive and overlooks the importance of racially diverse representation, too. The failure to take a more intersectional approach here feels like a pretty critical misstep, and a missed opportunity for sure.

What do you think? Does Bodyform's "femoji" campaign challenge taboos around periods in a fresh and interesting way, or does it miss the mark by reinforcing tired stereotypes and assumptions that leave many out of the conversation?

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