Building Confidence and Eliminating Shame Through Online Community
Issue No. 3: Words from the Wise
Words - Attia Taylor
Illustration - Singha Hon
Nina Lorez Collins is the founder of What Would Virginia Woolf Do?, an online community for women over 40. She’s also the author of a book by the same name, released in 2018.
Attia: We're huge supporters of your work and the community that you're building. You’ve recently finished a book tour and lots of people are joining your community. What have you learned through this process and how does health fit into your overall work?
Nina Lorez Collins: In terms of health and women's bodies, we've learned a lot in the group around the question of how women get the health resources we need, or as is often the case unfortunately, how we don’t get the information we need. It’s shocking how across the board—urban, rural, economically privileged and less so—people, even doctors, rarely talk to us about vaginal health, the effects of hormones, the rise of autoimmune diseases, thyroid issues, and endocrine issues, particularly as we age. So we’ve created a culture that is unusually candid and supportive, and we respond accordingly when needs arise. We recently created a chronic illness sub-group, for example, which has become a great resource for women who are trying to figure out mysterious stuff that's going on with their bodies. It's become abundantly clear to me how much of a need there is for women to be able to talk about that.
Attia: How are you marketing this group? How would someone find out about you?
Nina: Right now, people are only finding out about the group from each other, or when there's publicity about me or my book, What Would Virginia Woolf Do? And Other Questions I Ask Myself As I Attempt to Age Without Apology. Our recent growth spurt over the last six months was mostly due to a New York Times piece and interviews with me on podcasts like Unladylike. It's been nice to grow so organically. I think that's why our engagement is so high. Women really trust the space.
Attia: I can only imagine it's going to keep growing. Facebook is great now, but I imagine if there are 500,000 women in this group, it would change the nature of how people relate to each other within the group.
Nina: Yes, and we’re developing other channels for the platform. We released a podcast this summer called Raging Gracefully, and we have a website, thewoolfer.com, and a newsletter. Right now our plan is to allow the Facebook group to grow as large as it wants to be and to further develop the website, and possibly an app, to create ways for women to continue having private conversations, because that really is the core of the group. We're also experimenting with a small paid subscription group called Wolflandia—about 210 women have subscribed so far.
Attia: Have you thought about setting up something like local chapters?
Nina: We have around 25 regional and subject groups. The regional groups are used mostly to help members facilitate getting together in real life and to post questions and information of local interest. So right now, we have the regional groups, the subject groups, the paid group, the main group, and women are really using all of them in different ways. A typical Woolfer probably belongs to one or two regional groups, the main group of course, and then maybe Woolfer Book Club and Woolfer Travel. Or Money Matters, etc. Whatever she needs. The whole network and level of friendship and support we’ve developed is so fascinating. For example, one of my daughters recently called me at close to midnight from London. She was having a crisis and at first I wasn’t at all sure how to help. Then I posted in the London group, and within 15 minutes, a woman I don't know sent a car for my daughter, picked her up, brought her to her house in the country, and kept her for two days. It was incredible. Stuff like this happens all the time.
Attia: That's amazing!
Nina: Yeah, it was totally extraordinary. Women really get help, especially with health and emotional issues. Women go to the group and say, "This is happening, and I'm not sure what to do about it." Our members are very smart and resourceful, so, a lot of great information is exchanged.
Attia: Womanly is working on changing the narrative around the way women are portrayed as they age and grow. As you know, there's a stigma around women aging. How do you think the work you're doing is affecting that larger narrative?
Nina: I think our group is giving women confidence and eliminating some of the shame around aging. It makes us all aware of how many amazing women are out there, and how strong and resourceful and wise we are. I think what we're doing is operating very much on a personal level, helping the women in our group, but that of course has a ripple effect. Making them feel stronger ultimately helps their children and the men around them. I think overall there’s just strength in being more honest. Let's not pretend these difficult things aren't happening. Let's look at them and figure out how to strategize around them. A woman wrote in last week anonymously and told the story of taking her 17-year-old daughter to get an abortion. And she was clearly writing in a state where abortion is not common, where it's hard to get. She talked about walking across picket lines and flat out said that it was because of our group that she had the strength to handle the whole ordeal as well as she did, both for her and for her daughter.
Attia: Wow. I think the community approach that you’re taking is actually doing a lot of good in spreading confidence and awareness. Something I’ve learned is that bridging generations starts with older women. Have you received any advice from older women in your life that has guided you through this process?
Nina: Mostly I've gotten reassurance, in a very real way. There is a lot of hard stuff about getting older, both in our culture and just personally, physically. There's the nostalgia and sadness that comes with reaching a point where you feel like your best years are behind you. Overall, what I've taken from these older women is a real sense of strength and peace. With all the hard stuff, there's the good balance of wisdom and managing our pain and disappointment better. It's funny, just yesterday I realized that I look at young women very differently now. Suddenly I see them and I feel like I'm on the other side of the weird divide. I think about all the things they have ahead of them and I just feel very tender towards them. I think that's something that's happened in the group, too. I hope that the older women in our group would say that about the women in their 40s and 50s, that they feel loving and protective towards them.
Attia: That's a really good point. When we started this magazine, our intention was to learn from older women and kind of bridge this divide. I feel that I surround myself with young people. But I would also like to learn and have other perspectives around me.
Nina: We had a thread two years ago where women talked about whether they had younger friends. And I was like, "No, never. All my friends are my age or older." I remember feeling like I didn't find younger women interesting. I don't feel that way anymore. I'm feeling more...compassionate. I want to share what I know, and I'm interested.
Attia: I think as younger women, we see the media constantly glorifying young people, so it can be hard for us to reach out and talk about this without feeling ashamed. Because we also think, "Okay, one day I'm gonna be older. and I don't know what's gonna happen.”
Nina: I know. The truth is, for all the hard stuff, getting older is fabulous. I think women older than me would say that, too. That speaks to a feeling of confidence, knowing yourself, and getting smarter about being in the world. You get that through experience. It's not being condescending to someone who's younger, because you're having all these wonderful, new experiences. It's all just a process.
Attia: What would you say to be mindful of as you're growing and aging in American society?
Nina: I would say stay on top of your health, and really be in touch with what's going on with your body. That's going to start to shift, and you want to establish a baseline of knowing that you're responsible for your body. That means all those preventive things, like eating well and exercising, and finding good doctors who you feel comfortable talking to about what’s going on with your body. I also think financial health and independence is so important. Being smart about money and asking for help when you need it. Those two things are really important. So much other stuff is gonna change and shift a million times over. But if you're physically and emotionally healthy, and have a grip on your own financial stability, you can ride anything out.