Fighting Menstrual Taboos with Emoji

Plan International launched a campaign on Menstrual Hygiene Day to help break the worldwide taboo surrounding menstruation: The UK girls’ rights nonprofit designed five period emoji.

“We’re not saying that an emoji would solve all of these problems, but it will start a conversation, and raise awareness of the challenges women and girls face worldwide—and that can only be a good thing,” Danny Vannucchi, Plan International’s campaign manager, told Reuters. “Girls and women have told us about the embarrassment and shame they suffer when it’s their period. We need to make it easier to talk about something that is part of everyday life.”

The subject of periods has long been taboo in most societies around the world, and it is often considered embarrassing and shameful. Girls are forced to keep quiet about menstruation. “These taboos can have a damaging impact on the lives of girls and adolescents, from missing school because they face bullying or unfair treatment, to causing infections due to a lack of menstrual hygiene education and products,” he said. The taboo even extends to media images of menstruation and permeates our euphemisms,: TV commercials for sanitary pads substitute menstrual blood with a blue “sanitary” liquid and colloquialisms for periods like “Bloody Mary” disparage or make shameful the act of menstruating.

The five designs released by Plan International smash that stigma. More than 54,600 people voted for their favorite designs, choosing between a bloody sanitary pad, a calendar, a set of blood droplets, a uterus and a pair of panties with two blood droplets on them. The winning design—”period panties”—will now be submitted to the Unicode Consortium for potential inclusion in the emoji keyboard used across devices.

“It’s unbelievable that there’s an emoji for a floppy disk and tacos but not for something 800 million women and girls are experiencing on any given day,” said author Kathy Lette in a press release announcing the winning emoji. “I’m supporting Plan International UK’s campaign to introduce a period emoji because menstruation is completely normal and people shouldn’t feel shamed or embarrassed talking about it. Tampons are nothing more than freedom with strings attached.”

According to the United Nations, one in 10 girls in Africa will miss school during their period and will eventually drop out of school as a result; in Kenya, a new law will provide girls with free sanitary pads to help close the attendance gap that comes from menstruation. But this problem persists around the world. The Pad Project is raising funds for a machine that produces pads for under 4 cents a piece from locally sourced materials compared to 10 times as much at the local store—a device that will help keep countless girls enrolled in school in India. Even across the U.S., activists are fighting for menstrual equity.

“Breaking down taboos about menstruation will remove shame, stigma and restrictions, and can contribute to women and girls’ equality overall,” Ina Jurga, the international coordinator of Menstrual Hygiene Day, told Smithsonian Magazine. “Currently the only way to ‘talk’ about [menstruation digitally] is by using replacement emojis, such as red lady, the red dot, etc… if we cannot talk about it, the topic remains invisible.”


Meliss Arteaga studied at California State University Northridge and has a Bachelor’s Degree in journalism and minor in gender and women studies.