On the Runway: The Fight for the One-Piece Swimsuit Emoji

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The Miss America pageant is not the only establishment rethinking the swimsuit portion of its offering.

The Unicode Consortium — that is, the emoji overlords (or, more officially, the nonprofit organization “devoted to developing, maintaining, and promoting software internationalization standards and data”) — are in the process of deciding whether to allow a very simple pink maillot, or one-piece bathing suit, to join the itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny-yellow-polka-dot bikini in the emoji lexicon.

Its point is to offer another, less sexualized, option to users who may not feel that the Barbie-wardrobe two-piece really communicates who they are or what they want to say. Or is the most relevant choice in the current cultural climate.

“I have nothing against bikinis,” said Florie Hutchinson, the 38-year-old independent arts publicist and mother of three (soon to be four) girls, who, along with Jennifer 8. Lee, a former New York Times reporter and the founder of Emojination, proposed the maillot addition. “I have worn them. But not every woman or girl wants to wear one, and they should have the ability to make another choice,” Ms. Hutchinson said. “I wanted my girls, when they got old enough to have their own smartphones, to be able to see both, side by side.”

As it happens, she is also the woman who, a year ago, began the process of convincing the Consortium to add a flat shoe emoji to the red stiletto that already existed. Not every woman, it turns out, dreams of teetering around in skyscraper heels.

That proposal became something of a feminist cause célèbre. “I was really surprised,” Ms. Hutchinson said. “I knew it meant something to me but hadn’t expected it to mean so much to so many.” The shoe was formally adopted earlier this year; it should appear in emoji lexicons everywhere this month or next.

Having changed the women’s wardrobe options once, Ms. Hutchinson was ready to do it again. Ms. Lee, who has made it her mission to modernize the emoji vocabulary so that it reflects contemporary culture in an inclusive way, approached her about working together on the bathing suit, and Ms. Hutchinson enlisted Aphee Messer, the artist who created her shoe, to come up with a design.

This new bathing suit emoji could represent you.CreditAphee Messer/Emojination

“We wanted something very basic so that it would read microscopically,” Ms. Hutchinson said. The style of the suit — thigh-cut legs, round neck — is more sporty than sexy, and the curves of the theoretical body beneath less Playboy than those implied by the bikini. The one-piece is designed to appeal to those for whom swimming, or the pool and the beach, is more about activity than, say, hooking up, or who identify with strength and functionality (or discretion) more than seduction.

Also children.

Ms. Hutchinson and Ms. Lee are not, as it happens, the only emoji users who have taken note of the limited bathing suit options available to those who like to send messages via pictograms.

Still, not everyone is convinced. Now that the swimsuit emoji has been shortlisted for inclusion in the 2019 lexicon and is awaiting a verdict, Michael Everson and Andrew West, members of the International Organization for Standardization (and the two typographers who became famous for their campaign against last year’s frowning poop emoji), have expressed skepticism about the need for an additional swimsuit.

“Why? Mr. Everson asked in a comment to the emoji subcommittee. “A person wanting to indicate the use of swimwear can’t use the existing BIKINI? Is this really necessary? What about a Victorian bathing costume? Or a wet suit? Or water wings?”

“Do not encode,” was his recommendation. Mr. West simply wrote that he saw “no need.”

Ms. Hutchinson said: “I was flabbergasted. It seemed like a very archaic response to me.” One that, she said, reflected the dominance of “male coders, male feedback providers, men who sit on the committee.”

(It should be said that not every man involved with the subcommittee is against the swimsuit.)

Ms. Lee wrote in an email: “One could say it’s simply a failure of “theory of mind” with regard to emoji: How could anyone want an emoji that ‘I’ find useless or redundant? But I think it’s a subtle sign of the dearth of empathy in part of society that is manifesting itself in other social fissures right now.”

It’s also a relic of the early years of emojis, and the fact that, as she pointed out, “until 2016, the only roles you could play as a woman were princess, bride, dancer and Playboy bunny.”

That has changed now. There are more than 2,500 different emojis currently available, with more being added each year, though the wardrobe options are still relatively limited and notably retrograde, especially for women. Of note: Up for inclusion in 2019, along with the maillot, is a sari.

Still, there is a way to go, as both women are well aware. Ms. Lee mentions the poncho and the kurta as good future candidates. Ms. Hutchinson has another idea for an icon that could use a more modern option.

“The coin purse!” she said, referring to the silk pouch with the gold closure that looks exactly like the sort of purse used a prop in old MGM movies. “It’s like something out of the 1920s. It drives me bonkers.”

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