When women age without apology: "What would Virginia Woolf do?" is a rally cry for women over 40

Author Nina Collins talks about the closed and confidential Facebook group she started for women of a certain age

Published May 24, 2018 4:00PM (EDT)

Nina Collins  (Elena Seibert)
Nina Collins (Elena Seibert)

If you look at advertising, TV shows, movies, magazines, and pretty much every form of cultural expression, women are supposed to be sexy and young. As long as we fit a certain silhouette, our nubile, fertile young flesh is adored, desired and celebrated.

And when we stop looking young due to the anatomical (and gravitational) realities of aging? Well, then. It’s best that we either try to appear as young as possible via artificial means — or disappear from relevance.

But here’s the thing: We don’t disappear. And even when we do everything we can to stay fit and look young on the outside, be it plastic surgery, extreme skin care regimens, or artfully applied cosmetics, many of us are still forced to confront the transformations happening on the inside--and the way the people in our lives respond to those transformations (typically by pretending they aren’t happening). I almost didn’t interview Nina because I thought as someone in my 40s a book about aging was certainly not relevant to me, but the fact is we're all aging. Every day. And it turns out there is a lot to talk about as you peer over that psychological hill.

Hormonal changes. Marital problems and infidelity. Dating after divorce. Finding sensuality in your post-multiple-pregnancy, middle-aged physique. Having regrets about taking a career break to raise kids. Cosmetic procedures. These are things that we rarely talk about in public or even privately with our friends, but we need to talk about it with someone. The question is, who?

In 2015, author Nina Collins created a secret Facebook group. It was a place where she could seek the advice of her friends who had already experienced perimenopause and other physical changes related to aging. Friends invited friends and now the group, called “What Would Virginia Woolf Do?” (WWVD) has grown to a 17,000 member community in which women share — and sometimes overshare — the challenges and fears and triumphs of life over 40.

“It's been a very interesting organic experience of really smart women over 40 wanting to talk about where they are in life,” Nina told me in our recent interview for my podcast "Inflection Point." “It started as a place to talk about health stuff and now it's . . . very much a place where we talk about who we want to be and the second half of our lives, basically.”

Clearly Nina Collins has broken the ice for a conversation that women over 40 have been desperate to have: one in which we confront our shame, embrace our imperfections, honor what makes us unique, and benefit from our collective wisdom so that we can lift each other up.

Sounds like feminism to me.

The question is, why do we need a private online group to make these conversations happen? Why don’t we talk about the realities of middle age womanhood with the same frankness and positivity that we do about puberty and pregnancy? And what happens when we stop treating aging as a shameful secret and honor it as a time of transformation, wisdom, and self-actualization?

Nina has captured the essence of this group and her own reflections on “aging” in her new book, "What Would Virginia Woolf Do? And Other Questions I Ask Myself As I Attempt To Age Without Apology." Listen to our conversation here on "Inflection Point."

And when you’re done, come on over to The Inflection Point Society, our Facebook group of everyday activists who seek to make extraordinary change through small, daily actions.

Subscribe to "Inflection Point" to get more stories of how women rise up right in your feed on Apple Podcasts, RadioPublic, Stitcher and NPROne.

By Lauren Schiller

Lauren Schiller is the creator and host of Inflection Point, a podcast and public radio show from KALW and PRX featuring stories of how women rise up. For more rising up stories, follow Lauren on Twitter and Facebook, and subscribe to the podcast on Android or Apple.

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