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What Would Virginia Woolf Do?
And Other Questions I Ask Myself as I Attempt to Age Without Apology
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Mid-life is a time when women want to think about purpose, about how to be their best selves, and how to love themselves as they enter the second half of life. They yearn to acknowledge the nostalgia and sadness that comes with aging, but also want to revel in their hard-earned wisdom.
Part memoir and part resource on everything from fashion and skincare to sex and surviving the empty nest, What Would Virginia Woolf Do? is a frank and intimate conversation mixed with anecdotes and honesty, wrapped up in a literary joke. It’s also a destination, a place where readers can nestle in and see what happens when women feel comfortable enough to get real with each other: defy the shame that the culture often throws their way, find solace and laugh out loud, and revel in this new phase of life.
A NOTE ABOUT THE TITLE
IT’S MEANT TO BE IRONIC. If you are a Virginia Woolf scholar, you may well still enjoy this book, but please don’t take me to task for using her name in vain. I’m a reasonably well-read feminist and a fan. I loved A Room of One’s Own when I read it in college, and I once wrote a twenty-page graduate school paper on To the Lighthouse. Moments of Being, a collection of Woolf’s autobiographical writings, is my favorite book of hers, and I’m interested in the whole Bloomsbury history. But the title of this book came about because Woolf is a kick-ass woman of letters who killed herself in her fifties. As I was starting perimenopause and dealing with myriad symptoms that were bringing me down, “What Would Virginia Woolf Do?” struck me as a very funny line. It still does.
AND ANOTHER THING
Some names of Woolfers and other friends have been changed to protect privacy and others have not. All stories are true and any mistakes are mine and mine alone.
AGING, IT’S (NOT) FOR PUSSIES
You need a cohort of peers to go through the aging process with you. A cackle of crones! A cavalry!
—MARINA BENJAMIN, THE MIDDLEPAUSE: ON TURNING FIFTY
IN THE FALL OF THE YEAR I turned forty-six, I started experiencing night sweats and hot flashes. My periods had been erratic over the course of the previous year, so after a few weeks of worried confusion, I began to wonder if the symptoms might be the onset of perimenopause, the phase in a woman’s life I understood to precede menopause, but about which I knew little. A week or two later, I was waking up every night between three and five a.m. As someone who has been a lifelong excellent sleeper, this turn of events was deeply disconcerting. Naturally, I went straight to Google.
Efficiently directed to Healthline.com, I found sleeplessness among the many symptoms of perimenopause. On top of the sleep troubles, hot flashes, and night sweats, the site lists an alarming thirty-three additional symptoms, including feelings of dread, apprehension, and doom. Other winners are head and/or pubic hair loss, increase in facial hair, gastrointestinal distress, indigestion, flatulence, itchy skin, and nausea. The list goes on and on, each ailment more depressing than the next: mood swings, depression, thinning nails, anxiety, changes in body odor, lack of libido. Upon further investigation, I learned that the median length of time women endure symptoms is 7.4 years, and typically longer, if you are like me and the symptoms start before menstruation ceases. It appears likely, from what I’ve read, that I’ll be going through this “change of life” for about eleven years. That’s a long time to go from youngish to oldish, which, if we’re going to be brutally frank, is essentially what this phase is all about.
I had my kids early. I delivered my first child at twenty-four and my last at thirty. In New York City, where I live, this is fairly unusual. Because as women we make so many of our long-lasting friendships through our children, one thing it means is that practically all of my girlfriends are older than me, generally by a decade, so somewhere between fifty and sixty at this point. They had already gone through this! As I found myself sweaty, exhausted, and depressed in the fall of 2015, I was surprised that not a single one had warned me. Wasn’t the emergence of back fat alone worth a conversation?
I soon realized the reason women don’t talk openly about aging is pretty straightforward. We’ve been raised in a world, indoctrinated into a whole value system, in which young equals good and old equals bad, and we’re embarrassed to admit that we’re crossing that line. Who wants to sit around moaning about hormonal decline? It makes us feel pathetic. Even worse, it makes us question our intrinsic worth. Of course, some lucky women don’t experience menopausal or perimenopausal symptoms so dramatically. Some don’t have any symptoms at all. But even those women, like all of the rest of us, deal with the larger issues. Namely, what does it mean and feel like to be “older” in an ageist society—especially for females?
Any attempt to engage my children or husband in a conversation about my sleeplessness and other premenopausal woes was met with glazed-over stares of incomprehension and flat-out disinterest. No one wants to hear this stuff over the dinner table, and if you’re not in it, you truly cannot, and do not, want to relate. Yet I felt an urgent need to talk.
So I created a group on Facebook and called it “What Would Virginia Woolf Do?” The official description of the group is: “A closed, confidential forum for women over forty, with a bent toward the literary, witty, and feminist. A place to discuss, support, and share things we may not care to share with the men and children in our lives.” From the start, the group grew exponentially from friends to friends of friends to strangers, everyone wanting to know they weren’t alone—or going crazy.
Going on three years later, what has emerged (exploded, actually—we’re up to just under eight thousand members and growing) is a surprisingly candid, lively, and intimate extended conversation representing the range of interests of women in our cohort: educated, sophisticated, savvy, literary, and politically minded women who have strong opinions and a fierce sense of humor. We come from all over the country, even the world, and we talk about feminism, our bodies, health, fashion, politics, culture, men, and of course sex.
Everything is up for grabs, but interestingly, we’re less preoccupied with our children than with ourselves. And I’ve noticed that we’re not that obsessed with our careers either. This is a time in life when we want to think about meaning, about purpose, about how to be our best selves and how to love ourselves as we enter the second half of our lives. We yearn to acknowledge the nostalgia and sadness that come with age, but we also want to revel in our hard-earned wisdom. Women really do want to talk about these things, desperately, but they need a safe forum in which to do it.
According to the last US census, there are nearly 126 million adult women in the United States, more than 40 million of whom are ages forty to sixty. More than anything, the experience of these conversations made me acutely aware of a broader reality. There are literally millions of Gen X women yearning for the kind of support and information that will help us age gracefully, but without pandering or dumbing down—or making us nod off earlier than we already do. We want a resource that’s filled with humor, intelligence, and sexiness along with practical, rigorously researched information, and serving that need can’t be fully realized by a Facebook group. I wanted to dive deeper into the issues and write on a larger canvas about the profound and sometimes difficult journey we are making.
So much cultural attention is paid to girls’ coming-of-age, but very little to this other moment when women enter a significant new stage in life. There’s clearly room for a broader conversation around what it all means, how it feels, and the best way to navigate this new territory. The aim of this book is to provide a manifesto for the next coming-of-age. We need to be able to share our darkest stuff and know that we will be heard. (What does it feel like when your man needs Viagra for the first time? What’s it like to be envious of your college-age daughter? Am I drinking too much? Can I just say that sometimes I hate the way my body is changing?) How can we experience this change feeling empowered, not diminished?
Full disclosure: in many ways for me this whole project has been about debunking shame, or at the very least providing a forum where we can go from isolated shame to shared solutions. As women we’re told way too often that there’s something wrong with us, and there isn’t. Nothing you or I have experienced—in our bodies, our homes, our relationships—is new, but what is novel is that we have the opportunity to talk about it all out in the open, and that actually might help us feel better. So I don’t hold back. There may be times when you don’t agree with what I do or say, and you might not always like me, but that’s okay, because none of us is likable all the time and we’re all still worthy of love.
For the record, I’m divorced and a mother of four. I’m also mixed race (half-black and half-white) and straight, and although I was raised by poor artists, I’m now what would be considered by some Trumpians as a “liberal elite.” I live in Brooklyn, for Christ’s sake. So if the sensibility of the book skews in any of those directions, you now know why and I hope you aren’t offended.
Virginia Woolf was a contradiction. She killed herself in her fifties, and yet in many ways she represents all that we aspire to: a brilliant feminist, a wit, a woman of guts and glamour. Woolf’s famous “room of one’s own” is what women still need, and what we crave more than ever as we enter this new phase of life. This book provides resources, but much more: I hope it’s an intimate destination that showcases what happens when women feel comfortable enough to get real with each other.
What you have here in your hands is not just a book about perimenopause or menopause—you might not even be there yet—but a companion, a funny and insightful girlfriend to accompany you on the road after forty. I don’t want a ten-pound tome that screams “menopause” on my nightstand, but I do want frank and intimate conversation mixed with anecdotes and honesty. If it’s wrapped up in a literary joke, all the better. A place that makes me feel sexy, real, challenged, and informed all at the same time? A place to seek solace and laugh at the stuff no one seems to be talking about in public (yet)? That’s a place I want to be, and I want to be there with you.
Some people go to priests; others to poetry; I to my friends.
Who are we? I’ll let the women speak for themselves. Here’s an early post to the group, and a sampling of unattributed answers.
If you were forced to wear a Warning Label, what would yours say?
Does not suffer fools gladly
Sunny with a chance of showers
May cause laughter
Scary when hungry
Don’t tread on me
Not all original parts
Flammable when pissed
Though she be but little, she is fierce
Long-lasting when responsibly nurtured
Occasionally says fuck
Handle with care. Combustible.
Handle with care. Fragile.
Way tougher than I look
Lie to me at your peril
If I’m crying, I’m frustrated… not sad.
Nasty woman comin’ at ya!
Likely gonna hug you
Smart, and I know it
Slippery when wet
If this van is a rockin’, don’t come a knockin’
Fork in the road ahead
Gets better with age
Helpless to control sarcasm
Iron fist in a velvet glove
I just want peace
No small talk
I’m guessing you already feel among friends, so let’s keep going…
DEATH BY EILEEN FISHER AND OTHER FASHION TRAGEDIES
Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than to merely keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.
IT’S FIVE P.M. ON A Tuesday back when I still had kids at home and I’m returning from Fairway supermarket in my pajamas. My tennis elbow (a repetitive stress injury sustained not from racket sports but likely from too many hand jobs) is killing me and has not been helped by heaving jumbo-sized containers of laundry detergent into a grocery cart. I text my seventeen-year-old daughter and ask her to come help me with the groceries (it’s the only way I know I can reliably reach her, except maybe by Snapchat, whatever that is). She says she’s busy but will come down in a bit, and I’m too tired to argue, so I wait. I sit in my Subaru Outback, parked in the lot behind our building, and dip into the latest tome on menopause that has arrived from Amazon. These sorts of books have comprised my reading list for the last few months, as they have for tens of thousands of other women searching for peace of mind and advice.
Twenty minutes later, after I’ve finished a chapter on the cheery subject of uterine prolapse, my beloved child shows up, looking both sexy and adorable in a denim miniskirt, skimpy tank top, and my old Yves Saint Laurent black suede thigh-high boots. At five-four and 115 pounds, with long, blond, curly hair, perfect C cups, and many piercings, she basically looks like a twenty-first-century version of Daisy Duke (and because you’re my age, you’ll get that reference). Before she can get to me, a group of random men snapping pictures of a Lamborghini in the adjacent park intercept her to ask if she’ll pose by the car for them. True story. Again: I’m in my pajamas, with a station wagon full of groceries and an aching arm. And a couple of pimples on the lower right side of my face. I don’t feel jealous, just weary.
A reasonable question to ask is, “Why is she wearing her pajamas at five p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon?” There are a few answers to that question: I was having a brutal week of what I could only hope was PMS—I hadn’t had my period in two months, my breasts were sore, and I had seemingly put on ten pounds overnight, was having headaches, and was so tired I could barely get through the day. That afternoon I had called it quits early and at two p.m. took a bath, slipped into my pj’s (which generally consist of some sort of quasi-sexy lingerie-like top and Bedhead bottoms), and crawled into bed for a nap. With my vibrator.
An hour later I remembered that we didn’t have milk, eggs, or bread—or a plan for dinner. My last child (of four) is around for only a few more months, and on the rare evenings she and my second husband and I are all going to be together at home, I still (sometimes) valiantly try to make an effort. So I threw on a sweater and headed out to the grocery store.
The other part of the answer is that pajamas are comfortable, and they are easy to wear, and sometimes I don’t give a shit anymore about what anybody else thinks—I’ll wear what I damn well please. And if I’m being honest, I generally assume no one’s really looking anyway. This is also a tendency I must have inherited from my own mother, whom I fondly recall driving me to school in her flannel nightgowns, high ruffled collar and all. Mortified at the time, I remember begging her to drop me off a block away from the building, but now I really get it. And so do the multitudes of other women my age who wear sweats and jammies in public without thinking twice.
My teenage girl, of course, is experiencing the flip side of being almost invisible: being gawked at and objectified, with an amateur photography fan club on practically every corner. She probably put on her outfit hoping to look cute, especially to her friends, and wasn’t thinking about the fact that complete strangers might have a stake in her fashion choices. While on the outside all that attention is an ego booster, on the inside, it’s also oppressive. Walking around in your pajamas in broad daylight can be an act of liberation.
This got me to thinking about fashion in midlife in general. I do have to actually get dressed most days, and it’s often hard to figure out what to wear. Every time I leave the house I feel more pressure to consider, “Can I actually pull this off?” and it’s stressful and depressing to feel this crisis of confidence. I feel like I should be well beyond these sorts of feelings at this stage of my life.
The crux of the problem is multifold: on the one hand, I don’t want to be relegated to certain “older lady” norms or to feel like my options are shrinking. That’s just adding insult to injury, for Christ’s sake, what with hot flashes and vaginal atrophy. But on the other hand, a lot of what I already own—jeans, cute dresses, tight skirts—makes me feel like I’m trying too hard. For example, at some point, I just decided that shorts looked “bad” on me. What does that even mean? Will the sight of my less-than-taut and slightly crepey legs burn somebody’s eyeballs out? What standards do I feel the need to conform to?
As I start to slide toward the older side of the aging spectrum, I suddenly worry much more about whether I look “appropriate,” but even more important, whether what I’m wearing still makes me feel like “me,” like the person I still think of myself as. The truth is that I, like probably all of us, have internalized some sort of negative value that society tells me I have over a certain age, when I’m no longer “ripe,” with perky breasts and lustrous skin and hair. That’s beyond screwy, and it translates to a sort of immobility, a feeling of being frozen when I stand in my closet and consider my options.
A 2013 consumer studies report by Goldman Sachs points out that women’s spending on clothes peaks at forty-four, then “goes into a long slump.” For some women, middle age marks a point when we honestly aren’t as concerned with fashion and style as we used to be, but it’s much more complicated than that. Not only are our bodies changing in ways that aren’t accommodated by the latest trends, but the message is loud and clear that after a certain point, we should dispense with all sorts of items, from shorter skirts to sleeveless blouses. The rules, of course, are arbitrary, but still, many of us have swallowed them. Most women’s fashion magazines publish a splashy annual “Age” issue, purportedly to celebrate women of every generation. What the substance boils down to is a decade-by-decade breakdown of what you should and should not wear in your twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, and occasionally sixties (above which age, presumably, you are truly irrelevant to the fashion industry). So, according to this logic, what if you donned, say, a leather motorcycle jacket that’s deemed cool for a twenty-nine-year-old when you are forty-one—will you spontaneously combust?
What choices are we left with exactly? Anything that’s considered more “age appropriate”—looser clothes, suits, “slacks” (ew), even yoga or exercise clothes—makes me feel so old and fading that I can’t stand it. Fashion in midlife bounces off an inherent paradox: our bodies are starting to feel unruly, like they are betraying us (chin hair, paunch, skin sag), and at the same time there are suddenly both more rules and fewer choices.
To my mind, the solution to this quandary is a combination of humor and defiance with a healthy dollop of self-awareness. As a good friend said recently, “I wear mom jeans, Crocs, bathing suits with skirts, and could give a crap what anyone thinks.” Rock on, sister. As the designer Anne Klein said, “Clothes aren’t going to change the world. The women who wear them will.”
The bright side is that this phase of life really can be a great opportunity for reinvention. Figuring out what I want to look like, and how I want to feel in what I’m wearing, is what it’s all about. It’s not an easy process. Some of us may revel in the relief of saying good-bye to tube tops and others may mourn letting go of an item that is a poignant reminder of their younger selves. But let’s face it: as long as we’re not wearing a hospital gown or a colostomy bag, it’s all good, just best done with some ownership and thought. For me personally—and this may change—that means wearing high clogs and clothes that veer toward pajamas and lingerie.
THE TYRANNY OF HEELS—AND WHY I LOVE THEM
Sensuality doesn’t come from heels—especially if you can’t walk in them. It’s like a beautiful woman who has the perfect hair and makeup but doesn’t smile. You should dress to feel good, not show off. It takes life to learn that.
—INÈS DE LA FRESSANGE
PART OF WHAT’S SO APPEALING about clogs is that I’m less and less able to wear high heels, which makes me want to cry. I was never a Carrie Bradshaw–like stiletto wearer. Even in my ultrayouth, my feet were wide and stilettos made me feel like an unsteady giraffe. But I remember wearing four-high-inch pumps to high school (driving there in my $250 yellow VW Bug with the rusted-out floor), and my entire adult life I’ve worn towering wedges and chunky high-heeled boots—shoes that practically feel like signature items. I love everything about heels: how they enhance my legs (one of my better features), how tall I become (my real height is a solid but not impressive five foot six), and how sexy and powerful they make me feel.
However, as great as heels are, being able to walk upright on two feet is even better. It’s been a slow process, but around three years ago I started feeling ever so slightly unsafe that far off the ground. It dawned on me that I could easily twist or even break an ankle. I said good-bye to five inches forever. Maybe it was the recognition of my own mortality, starting from the feet up. Since then, I have in fact teetered a few times, and I even tripped and fell on a sidewalk once last Christmas Eve after too much to drink. More and more I find myself gripping my husband’s arm as we hurry somewhere. I do yoga, and my balance is respectable (tree position is not a problem, even with my arms straight up above my head!), but the fact is that I’m just plain getting older and my center of gravity is unfortunately shifting upward toward my waist and midriff. The writing is on the wall. I can see that in a few years I’ll be going down to three inches, then two, and then flats… This is why, clogs.
I’m not nearly alone here. We’re giving up heels either for safety or, even more commonly, because it hurts too goddamn much to wear them now. According to the Illinois Podiatric Medical Association, women are four times more likely than men to have foot problems, generally a consequence of high heels. For one thing, pregnancy hormones weaken feet, and women are at a higher risk of stress fractures in the foot than men. Also, more than half of women get bunions, and women are nine times as likely as men to have the problem, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Some doctors say the growing popularity of high heels and pointy-toed shoes, including among very young women, has helped increase the incidence of bunions. In any case, I’m sure it hasn’t been lost on you that foot surgery for women in their fifties appears to be epidemic. In the last two years, I’ve had six friends undergo operations that sound utterly barbaric. Whether it’s damage and calcification sustained from years of pinched high heels, too much running on concrete, or simply life and genetics, they have all had procedures that involved slicing and shaving bones, inserting pins, and weeks and weeks of bed rest and crutches. And you only have one foot done at a time! After a year or so of full recovery, you can look forward to going through it all over again with the other foot! This is cruel and unusual, even by most standards of beauty sacrifice. Do men have these surgeries? Rarely. Why would they? They wear comfortable, supportive flat shoes all their lives. They don’t contort themselves into death-defying contraptions to look sexy and winsome. When you think about it, the whole thing is devastatingly messed up.
Writer Mary Karr bemoaned this ugly reality in a 2016 article for The New Yorker. At age sixty, she described her once-perfect feet as gnarled, beleaguered, and bunioned. She taped up a box of high heels that might have funded an early retirement and sent them off to Goodwill. She notes Michelle Obama’s (sensible) love of kitten heels as well as Victoria Beckham’s recent announcement that even her days of high heels are over. Following in Karr’s pained footsteps, Cindi Leive, editor in chief of Glamour
- "If only What Would Virginia Woolf Do? was out before I spent the fortune I don't have on supplements and Spanx--I could have saved so much money and worry! This is that manual you've hoped for to help you navigate your apology-free future. Buy several copies, you'll want to share it with your friends."—Annabelle Gurwitch, New York Times bestselling author of I See You Made an Effort
- "Nina Lorez Collins is a force of (Mother) Nature. What Would Virginia Woolf Do? is an irreverent, fun, and candid Nina-hosted party you can read in the bath-armed with an ice pack, eucalyptus candle, floral essences, chocolate sundae, or even the perfect cocktail (recipe included). For a much-needed conversation about The Change, join the 'Woolf Pack.' It's a delight."—Sandra Tsing Loh, author of The Madwoman in the Volvo
- "This book feels like kicking back after a long day at life with your fierce and funny-as-hell friend who isn't afraid to get frank about how she manages the most maddening issues of mid-life. It's not just informative, it's uplifting-reminding women that we are not alone in this, so we may as well learn from each other and laugh our (sagging) butts off about it together! It'll make you proud to be a 'Woolfer' too."—Amy Spencer, author of Meeting Your Half-Orange: An Utterly Upbeat Guide to Using Dating Optimism to Find Your Perfect Match
- "What Would Virginia Woolf Do? is a treat for any of us who were stunned to find out that being forty-five is different than being twenty-five. Nina Lorez Collins is a warm, funny tour guide on this long strange trip we call aging."—Julie Klam, New York Times bestselling author of The Stars in Our Eyes
- "Every generation needs its Virgil and its Muse. For women Gen Xers on (or over) the brink of menopause, the two are fused in one: Nina Lorez Collins. In the vital tradition of Gaily Sheehy's Passages, Collins has written THE book on the great mid-life "Change," with its scourges (insomnia, wrinkles) and its gifts (confidence, self-forgiveness). Combining solid research and personal experience, What Would Virginia Woolf Do? lays out the saga of estrogen's retreat with intelligence, humor, generosity, and unflinching candor."—Susan Rieger, author of The Heirs
- "I learned a ton from this book. In saying what others can't, won't, or don't, Nina Lorez Collins does midlife women an enormous favor: She tells us what's "normal" at this age (basically, everything) and how to think about, confront, and conquer it. A funny, smart, enlightening What to Expect When You're Expecting Middle Age."—Cathi Hanauer, New York Times bestselling author of The Bitch is Back: Older, Wiser, and (Getting) Happier and Gone
- On Sale
- Apr 10, 2018
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Grand Central Life & Style