Being a woman is no easy task. Our bodies are complex and our battles are uphill. We spend half our life fighting for equality in a patriarchal world, managing busy schedules and often times families all the while. Every month is a hormonal roller coaster, and then one day, that roller coaster goes completely off the rails. It's a lot, especially when society pushes women's issues into the margins. If half the world's population goes through menopause, why aren't we talking about it all the time?
Writer and entrepreneur Nina Lorez Collins saw that problem and gathered a tribe of like-minded women to create a solution. It's an app called the Woolfer, and like anything great, this app started small. It began as a Facebook group a few years ago, something Collins formed to give aging women a place to share stories of similar life events, and receive support and advice in return.
It took off, evolved into the app, and today, the Woolfer serves as a safe space and outlet for women to air out their grievances, worries and truths. It's a place for women to get real about aging and health-related issues; to share stories and have a laugh. There are group talks, events and even film screenings. The Woolfer consists of literally anything and everything.
Following the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve become much more accustomed to living virtually. Built on the basis of making virtual connections, this might be a perfect fit for any woman in need of a support system in these trying times. This large yet close-knit community of women are forging long-lasting bonds, even if it is just on the internet.
Raised in New York by her late mother Kathleen Collins, who was herself an artist and civil rights activist, helping others express themselves runs in Nina’s blood. It's been a lifeline during her own struggles this year, too. We caught up Collins to learn more about the Woolfer, how it's helping women around the country, and how it might help you.
What moment did you realize you wanted to make a platform like the Woolfer?
It was when I was 46, and I was suddenly not sleeping well. I was waking up, awake at four in the morning with insomnia for the first time in my life, and I realized that I was in perimenopause. I really didn’t know anything about perimenopause, because no one ever talked about it. I googled it, kind of figured out that this is what it was, and I really wanted to talk to girlfriends about my experience, their experience. I wanted to learn from other people.
Did your mom instill values in you that you carry through today?
Oh, definitely. My mom was a writer and a filmmaker, and she was very funny and smart and powerful. I think she definitely made me feel like I could do anything. I think she gave me a lot of creative spirit. Probably my entrepreneurial spirit comes from her.
Are there aspects of activism along with your mother’s teachings things that you wanted to push forward in the Woolfer?
I’m very concerned about diversity in the Woolfer, and I really think I can play a somewhat unique role in bringing women of color and white women together, because I feel like I really do understand it from both sides. Although, my mother was really an activist when she was young, I would not describe myself as such an activist. I’m probably, like my mother, really interested in women’s inner lives. In my mother’s work, there’s a real interest in the inner lives of women, and that’s what I share with her, for sure.
What were the steps that led to the creation and concept of the Woolfer?
I created a Facebook group initially back in 2015, just kind of on a whim. I called it What Would Virginia Woolf Do?, and we grew that group to around 30,000 women all over the world. I realized overtime - because it had become all-consuming for me, and lots of my moderators and for the women participating - that ultimately what we had created was kind of a secret club for smart women of a certain age. I decided we’d be best off leaving Facebook and creating our own branded app. We built the Woolfer app and changed it to a subscription model, so the women could belong. It’s a membership. It’s a club.
How do you think society could change if something like the Woolfer was more widespread? If more people had this kind of educational opportunity and sense of community?
That’s a great question. I think it could really change the way women see themselves in the second half of their lives, and the way women experience it. It’s hard for women to make friends often as they get older, because we don’t have kids to bring us together or school. A place like the Woolfer is really a place where women make a lot of friends, get a HUGE amount of emotional support, and then also get all these resources and information. I really think it’s invaluable for the women who are in it. For $35 a year, they’re getting a place where they know if they ask a question they’ll get a really good answer. They’ll also get the wisdom and emotional support that we can’t always find in real life. It’s a bigger canvas to choose from, essentially.
What are some new things you’re interested in incorporating?
Yeah, that’s so funny. Just today I was working on a new plan for something. We decided we’re gonna start a series on spirituality, where we thought we’d bring in all sorts of people [to talk about] astrology, human design, meditation- kind of an exploration of spirituality, which I think will be a really good idea. We do the culture club, and we just did a screening last night for a film called Black Girl from 1966. We have an ongoing "lunch and learn" series on Fridays, where different Woolfers with various expertise come and talk for an hour online. That’ll be anything from an author giving a talk about her book, to this week, we had a woman doing ear seeds - these acupressure gold ear things that you put in your ears to press your acupoints. Really, all sorts of things.
Your bio says you've studied Narrative Medicine. What is that, and how is it helpful?
I did a program at Columbia, which is the only master’s program in narrative medicine in the country. I always describe narrative medicine as the study of how we tell our stories in the context of death and dying. It’s really about personal narrative, and how we connect in the context of illness - both how patients experience medical care, and their own deterioration, and how caretakers experience being the caretakers of people who are suffering from illness.
I took the program because my mom died when I was young of a cancer that she kept a secret, which was super traumatic for me. I wanted to understand what she might’ve been thinking or experiencing as she was keeping her illness private during her illness and her death. When I finished the program, I created an empathy curriculum for medicine residents of the big hospital in Brooklyn called Maimonides.
I think I’m genuinely interested in these ideas of how people - but particularly how women - feel with transitions of loss. That intersects perfectly with the Woolfer, in that the audiences here are in the second half of their lives. Women who are dealing with empty nests, with their bodies changing, often their love relationships are changing or have changed – divorce, death. Eventually, our looks will change, our health will erode. Eventually, we are all going to die. I’m interested in how we manage these transitions, how we get through them as best as possible – how can we really thrive through them. I think the secret to doing that is really knowledge and connection.
What’s been the most rewarding part for you since creating this platform?
It’s the friendships I’ve made, for sure, and all the really really interesting women I’ve gotten to know. I just feel like I’m surrounded – drowning – in interesting women, and that’s been super rewarding. In as much as the community helps all these women, I’ve been helped personally in the exact same way. I’ve learned so much about what it is to get older. I’m only 51 now, but I look at women in the community who are in their 60s and 70s, and I gain so much from them.
Was your mother a part of the inspiration for creating this app?
Not in any kind of obvious way. I actually only realized a few years after the fact that I created the community when I was 46, and my mother was 46 when she died. I do think very much so, in my 30s and 40s, I knew what my mother was like in her 30s and 40s, but once I hit 46, I didn’t have her as a model anymore. I never knew my mother at 50, or 51, or 52. I think in a lot of ways, I subconsciously created the community to build a kind of cadre of mothers and sisters for myself. That’s really what I’ve done.
What have you learned from the women in the Woolfer through this process?
Oh my gosh, so many things! I mean this may sound trite, but I would say, ultimately, we’re more alike than we are different. As much diversity as there is, there isn’t a scenario that someone could present that someone else wouldn’t understand.
The number one thing I hear from women all the time is that the group makes them feel less alone, it makes them feel more normal, and I think that that’s really true. It’s one thing to have a group of friends in real life who kind of validate you and help you through problems, but to have this huge virtual community where you can go online and post about some weird personal problem or physical problem and have women immediately come back and say, ‘oh, yes that’s happened to me and this is how I dealt with it?’ It’s incredibly reassuring. The commonality that ultimately ties us all together has surprised me to some extent. It’s really quite powerful.
I suppose I’ve learned a million little small things. I’ve learned things about physical ailments. For example, I thought I was having a stroke one day, and I posted on the app and some women said ‘you’re having vertigo,’ and they were totally right. I’ve learned all sorts of things about physical ailments and political differences. Even now with all the conversations we’re having about race. I’ll be in a room sometimes with a woman who grew up and never saw a black person until she was in college. There are women of wide ranges of experience from the super savvy on certain topics like racial equity, to women who say, "this has not ever been part of my life, and I do want to learn, and I’m here to learn." They’re coming from very different places. I’ve come to really appreciate that.
Photography by: Tanya Malott