A tiny droplet of blood is among the new crop of emoji unveiled by Unicode, the de facto Merriam-Webster of tiny cartoon illustrations. This tiny drop of blood will surely be useful when discussing hospital stays, Red Cross donations, nosebleeds, the Theranos scandal, and kitchen mishaps. What it will not be as useful for is symbolizing the thing it was designed to represent and normalize: periods.
Plan International UK, an organization that works for girls’ equality, started campaigning for a period emoji in 2017, arguing that girls feel a lot of shame and stigma around discussing their periods and that an emoji would be a small but meaningful step in normalizing menstruation. Sample designs included a calendar with blood drops, blood drops expressing different emotions (smiling, frowning, grimacing), a uterus, and a menstrual pad with a little squiggle of red smack in the center.
Plan International UK held a vote, and the winner, announced that June, was a pair of “period pants”: white undies with a couple cartoon drops of blood. As far as a period emoji goes, this is a great design. It’s clear what’s happening, but it’s not overly graphic. Someone at my old workplace even turned the mock-up into a custom emoji for our company Slack, which we used in discussions about both reviewing period products and what our own bodies were up to. Beyond being convenient, the bloody-undies emoji was just plain fun.
So why did we end up with this measly blood drop instead? Unicode rejected Plan International UK’s initial bid. In response, Plan International UK banded together with NHS Blood and Transplant, and resubmitted the runner-up in their period-emoji-poll—that plain drop of blood. Unicode approved this time and connected the blood drop to a few key words: blood donation, medicine, and yes, menstruation.
It’s possible that someone at Unicode thought the design was just too specific: Its selection factors note that it is looking for emoji that have several uses. But an emoji like the period undies is useful precisely because of its specificity—a blood drop seems like it will inevitably require a follow-up text to clarify what type of bleeding you are currently doing, and whether it is cause for concern. Plus, there are plenty of uses for a menstruation-specific emoji: as a signal that you’re not feeling super great to a running buddy, as a clue to your sex partner that they should get ready to put down a towel, as an explanation to a roommate why you’re using the tub for long warm bath. Periods are an indisputable part of life. They should be part of our emoji-arsenal, too.