On Thursday, the internet powers-that-be, specifically Unicode, “the computing industry standard for encoding,” are gifting us with 56 new emojis for 2017. These include a zombie, a bowl of cereal, an elf, a bearded dude, a woman with a hijab, men and women in lotus positions, gender non-binary adults and children, and — may the heavens open and lactation consultants rejoice — an emoji of a woman breastfeeding.
Sisters in boobage, we have an emoji.
I don’t have to tell you this is a big deal. Unicode approved a baby bottle emoji in 2010, and since then, that bottle’s been the only way to use emojis to express infant feeding. And this has been a big deal, for several reasons: According to the proposal for the breastfeeding emoji, the baby bottle ranks in the top 50% of emojis used. It’s also important when U.S. breastfeeding rates are only 49.4% at six months, and 40.7% exclusive breastfeeding at three months — meaning 59% of mothers are supplementing by three months (this can include formula or food). So more than 50% of mamas do need that bottle emoji by then. Nobody is taking issue with that, I promise.
The CDC’s goals for 2020 have 60.6% of mothers nursing at six months, and 46.2% nursing exclusively at three months. The only way we’ll accomplish that is to make breastfeeding more accessible, and one of the key ways to make it more accessible is to make it more acceptable, more normal, more woven into the fabric of society.
Cue our new emoji.
The breastfeeding emoji was submitted for just that reason by Rachel Lee, a registered nurse at University College of London Hospital. She argued that it would fill a gap “given the prevalence of breastfeeding in cultures around the world, and throughout history.” She cites the frequency of breastfeeding, especially at birth (nearly 80% in the United States), and argues that other apps and sticker packs include breastfeeding moms. Apparently a breastfeeding emoji was one of the top 30 emoji requests, and inspired a Change.org petition, in addition to many tweets asking for it.
As she suggests, the emoji will most likely be used for things like “Up at 3am with the baby [breastfeeding emoji].” I can see myself using it when I nurse at the computer and start making typos. “Sorry, [breastfeeding emoji].” And of course you’d use it to tell your friends why you’re running late, and just generally how you’re feeding your baby. The answer to “How’s baby doing?” could be as simple as “[breastfeeding emoji].”
Lee says that it could help unite parents “with a little badge of honor on social media, be used for quick communication with friends and family or even just as a sign that society supports them for their hard work.”
The only problem I have with this emoji: It’s white. Well, it’s yellow, but that implies white, especially when coupled with the baby’s brown hair. That includes only something like 16% of the world’s population. But since it’s accepted, expect it to come in a range of skin tones, says Unicode. That’s awesome, especially with the push to increase breastfeeding rates among U.S. minorities. It will do a lot to normalize breastfeeding when images of it are out there and readily available. Think of the formula industry. Pictures of babies with bottles have been used to sell artificial milk since it hit the market. This emoji is one little way of normalizing — and therefore selling — breastfeeding too.
“I am under no delusion that creating a small emoji to exist in this society may not be the real push to normalize breastfeeding in public forums,” Lee said. In other words, it’s not going to be the thing that pushes up breastfeeding rates all by itself. While it’s a great idea, while people will use it, and while it’s an amazing start, well, it’s probably not enough to keep women from being harassed for nursing in public, or closing the gap in healthcare that provides women the professional support they need to overcome certain nursing challenges. But it could be the beginning of a complex web that starts to normalize breastfeeding, which could lead, eventually, to better protections and more accommodations for nursing moms.
The earliest we’ll see the new emoji, hopefully in a range of skin tones, is summer 2017.
“But if it helps just get the message out there by creating discussion and gathering support, then it’s all worth it.”