Brassieres and Red Ribbons

Art, Language, Menstruation

Guest post by Karina Billini

In the beginning of my college career, I was given powerful advice: “In every class you take, apply your craft. Challenge it and challenge yourself.” From gay studies to Child Development, I have taken the opportunity of higher education to explore myself as a writer. So there I was in my last semester as an undergrad, taking the most spoken about course at Marymount Manhattan College—Social Construction of Menstruation. As a theatre and creative writing student, I haven’t had much explicit exposure to the social construction of menstruation. Yes, I have been exposed to it through Always commercials and even the opinions of my female friends, but never within my craft. The only thing I have been exposed to that is relevant to menstruation is The Vagina Monologues, which is not really much. Plus, I had NEVER stumbled across any menstruation-themed poetry. So, when my class was presented with the rubric for our final project, I decided to put together a poetry collection of menstruation-themed poetry and yes, even write my own for the very first time.

I have always liked a challenge, particularly one that deals with the legitimacy of my craft. In the academic world, poetry has always been seen as flowery. Many fail to acknowledge it as a potent social commentator. Poetry is not just about the aligning of words for lovely rhythm and vivid imagery, but to provoke the minds of its readers and be the voice for the growing unheard. Poetry allows the preservation of the human experience and all its aesthetics that can sometimes be drowned out by the stiff language and observations of theoretical work. For example, the poetry of Audre Lorde really spoke for women of color who were, at that time, written into invisibility within the mainstream movements for woman’s rights. I think about Langston Hughes’ poetry and how it beautifully and explicitly illustrated the struggle of African Americans. If poetry can help illuminate the menstrual experience and possible attack some of its negative social constructions, why isn’t there more menstruation-themed poetry? Why is it that when I Google menstruation-themed poetry, the results are so scarce? Why haven’t I written any poetry on menstruation?

As a female playwright and poet, I thought I wrote explicitly on the woman experience. I have dramatized attacks on gender inequality, given birth to strong female protagonists, and poetically sculpted what I thought woman should be. I have even let my readers become Peeping Toms to my womanhood, allowing them to read my struggle with the power dynamics of love, sex, money, and education. However, I never wrote about the major factor that played in all my experiences as a woman: my body. As I decided on my final project to be a collection of menstruation-themed poetry, I realized that I never wrote about this phenomenon that had such a tremendous impact on my shaping as a woman.

Why haven’t I? Why was I so brave and comfortable to allow my readers into the playground of my bed and the fallen country of my broken heart…..but not menstruation? Why was it second nature for me to script words like “sex” or “fuck”, but not “menstruation” or “vagina”? After all, I had spent most of my childhood waiting for my first period and will continue to revolve my calendar around my cycle for the rest of my menstrual life. I had secretly pocketed away my menstrual experiences in the manner that I slip neon-colored pads into my purse’s interior pocket. I had done it for the same reasons: 1) learned/inherited embarrassment and 2) maintenance of “lady-like” appearances (whatever that means). I was not writing, but being written, shaped, and formed by these societal norms.

For those reasons, I provided my writing friends and myself with the writing prompt to write a menstruation-themed poem. I placed the prompt on Facebook and encouraged my friends to let their inspiration guide them; I wanted them to write the good, the bad, the ugly….as long as it was honest. As expected, I did get a lot of immature (uneducated) responses to my prompt via Facebook. One individual exclaimed, “Dear god” while another individual asked me what kind of “school” did I go to. However, I had a stronger positive feedback. My writing friends, both male and female, were excited and willing to take on the prompt. I even had one friend who already had written a menstruation-themed poem prior to my prompt. When the prompt’s due date came along, I was handed extraordinary work that captured hot topics on menstruation that was covered in my social construction class. To my surprise, my fellow writers wrote about various things in regards to menstruation without ever really receiving a menstrual education. They questioned menstrual myths, promoted menstrual sex as the highest level of intimacy (which my female poets were so excited to discuss with me!), illustrated menstruation as a celebration of womanhood, and even employed lunar references. In the end, my writers expressed to me that this prompt has inspire them to continue writing menstruation-themed poetry.As for myself, I also completed my first menstruation-themed poem ever. Honestly, I don’t think I would’ve been fully ready to write if I hadn’t taken a class on menstruation. I now understand the advice that was given to me in the beginning of my college career. When I finally understood how heavily socially constructed menstruation was and how I was very much embedded in it, I learned how much responsibility I had as a writer. With menstruation and any subject, I have the responsibility to challenge their stereotypes, create new (positive) ideologies, and open up MINDS! Now educated, I have regained the power of my pen. Armed, I now have the duty to write menstruation out of invisibility. However, I must be honest about my menstrual experiences within my work. Not everything I write on menstruation will be hyper-positive or hyper-negative. In Brassieres and Red Ribbons, I speak about my menstrual experience. I get really strong and painful periods. On the first day of the month, I have extremely painful cramps that lead to fainting spells. And I always seem to get sick at the public bathroom at work! Brassieres is about that experience. Menstruation is illustrated as an obstacle in Brassiere, but it’s also an opportunity for the speaker to escape the chaos of adulthood and be alone with her body. This moment of menstruation allows her to finally let go of the superficiality of life and finally be naked (literally and figuratively.) Being educated in the social constructions of menstruation has done the same for me; it has provided me newfound nudity and liberation as both a woman and poet. Freed, I wrote this poem.


Brassieres and Red Ribbons

by Karina Billini

You are naked.
Hunched over in a bathroom stall—
your legs,
snow white and skinny,
stick out
just as Dorothy’s nemesis did
under that conjured-by-red-shoes house.

There’s no place like home.

You can’t afford
the forty-dollar cab drive
or another sick day
so just as before,
you cash out
your mother’s advice—
attempt to master mind over body
by fantasizing
of the last moment
your body was pre-menstrual.
You were twelve.

You stop caring
when cramps break
the seams of your trousers,
the buttons from your blouse,
and unstraps your brassiere
more skillfully
than any man has
in the playing field of your bed.
And for once,
the lights are on
and you don’t mind your nudity.
Your work clothes
are wrinkled and damped
by foreign liquids outlining
the floor’s teal tiles—
purposeless like feathers
during a bird’s wing moult.
You can’t make flight.

Only pain clothes you,
thick like tweed in late August—
You wipe away streams
from your swollen breasts
and remind yourself
you are your body’s keeper.


You wait
for the revolt to be over,
watching the blood
like red ribbons
you tied around your ankle,
six years old and secretive—
your mother
once discovered
and chopped up,

Why do you want to be a woman so fast?

New Collection of Research on Menstruation and Representation

New Research

A special issue of the scholarly journal Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal has just been published, featuring several pieces about menstruation, media representation, and the ways we talk about it. You can see the table of contents here, as well as purchase individual articles (or the whole collection, for $146.17). Several of these papers were presented at the 2009 meeting of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research, and the special issue also includes several new poems, visual work, and book reviews.