The self-esteem of modern women is low. I should know, I’ve just written a book on anxiety. We see the evidence of white male power every day and sometimes the fight feels hard. But we are fighting. We’re desperate for a new way of doing things. When Donald Trump was inaugurated we marched in our millions across the world to say, ‘This isn’t good enough.’
A new book written by actor Gillian Anderson and journalist Jennifer Nadel acknowledges all this. We: A Manifesto For Women Everywhere is the product of over two years’ reading and conversations between the two friends. It asks: why are our bodies and minds still suffering so much in the 21st century? Why are so many women locked in cycles of anxiety, depression, self-criticism and self-harm? By exploring these issues and offering women a toolbox of practical, spiritual and psychological exercises, the book says it will help inspire a more fulfilling way of living.
The authors sit in their publisher’s London office eating a Pret lunch. They wrote the book, they say, not just because they’ve both struggled with low self-esteem, emotional pain and mental distress but because they see an ‘epidemic’ of low self-esteem around them.
Epidemic is the right word. An NHS inquiry into mental health in England revealed that more women aged 16 to 24 are experiencing mental health problems than ever before. Nearly 20 percent of this group self-harm. Dove’s recent study of 10,500 women across 13 countries showed that only 20 percent felt confident in their bodies and 85 percent ‘opt out’ of activities when
they don’t feel good about themselves.
We’ve attached a strange sense of nobility to suffering in silence. We want – or think we ought – to be prosperous superwomen with minds clear as spring water. Both authors laugh at the idea of being ‘sorted’. ‘We’re certainly not sorted in any way, shape or form,’ says Gillian. ‘I hope that comes across.’
There is naked honesty from both women throughout the book. ‘So many of my living years have been spent engaging in one form of self-abuse or another,’ writes Gillian. Jennifer opens up about the mental illness she battled two years after her divorce. ‘When I developed clinical depression I discovered that all the anger I thought I’d avoided lay trapped inside me. My route out of depression involved both medication and a lot of work connecting with and releasing the anger I’d been too “spiritual” to feel at the time. We aim to shift our attitudes towards ourselves, others and how others treat us, away from victim narratives, focusing on our free will.’
‘For many years, whenever I was doing a mundane task... there would be a constant argument in my head,’ says Gillian. ‘I’d be defending myself about something or telling somebody what I really wanted them to know about themselves. Much of it is an attachment to being right.’ The different tack, she says, when she notices ‘that this type of thinking has taken over’, is to ‘interrupt’ it. ‘It becomes important to get to the root of why I feel misunderstood.’
‘Our hope is that women aren’t ashamed to read it on the bus,’ adds Gillian. ‘We want it to become something that helps to abolish shame around that world, to feel a sense of pride in being a part of something that is about truth and community, how we are more similar than we are different.’
We... doesn’t hold back in examining the female experience. Chapters are woven with personal vignettes, discussing everything from depression and addiction to divorce and self-destructive relationship habits. Initially, Gillian had reservations. ‘They kept saying, “We need more of you!” But I didn’t want this to become the celebrity’s version of events.’ She acquiesced. Why? ‘Because, to a degree, we all have the same experience in terms of fears, hopes, desires, values and struggles.’ Indeed, it’s easy to forget the ‘GA’ initials in the book stand for Gillian Anderson – a famous actor with all the associated privilege. She’s thrilled to hear this. ‘I hope the level of honesty will be of service in some way. It comes from a place of truth and, no matter what happens, it’s better being out there than not being out there.’
Alongside stand-out passages on the messiness of motherhood, female sexual desire and masturbation – ‘For women there’s still a stigma. Getting to know your own sexual needs and how to meet them will make you feel more of an agent, less of an object’ – Gillian discusses being perimenopausal. ‘The perimenopause was a sudden inability to cope with anything when I had been seemingly able to cope with everything simultaneously for years,’ she writes. ‘It came in the form of sudden uncontrollable emotionality and hysteria and feeling like someone else’s brain had replaced mine.’
It’s quite thrilling to read. Hormonal discomfort affects most women at some stage, but we often feel the need to stifle it in whispers. ‘The more women don’t talk about the full experience of being female, the longer we have to hide who we really are,’ says Jennifer. ‘We’ve had to hide to be desirable within the male gaze, pretending to be hairless, period-less or menopause-less. We need to change that dynamic.’
It might be a feminist book by nature, but it’s not all feminist theory – the authors recognise we can come by this elsewhere. We discuss how easily women can fall into the trap of feeling like their feminism isn’t good enough unless they’re pushing all the time. ‘There’s almost enough stridency out there,’ says Gillian, carefully. ‘There’s a way to have one’s truth heard and be compassionate.’
She explains how her notion of feminism has evolved. ‘I have instinctive reactions to inequality or sexism, but I remember, within the last 20 years, saying in an interview that I wasn’t a feminist,’ she says. ‘A friend emailed saying, “You can’t say that, of course you are!” I had to examine my fear. Now I’m proud to use the word.’
In the book, Gillian considers her fears about going public over having to battle for equal pay with a male co-star (David Duchovny for the X-Files revival). ‘Every time I thought about saying it publicly I felt nauseous,’ she writes. ‘It was, I think, purely the fact that the subject of pay equality had been broached fairly recently and on a very public scale by numerous well-respected women in my industry that gave me the strength to get into it. Even though I’d had the same “fight” for parity with the same network two decades earlier and won. Even though it was the truth! I was afraid of angering The Man and embarrassing the WOMAN in charge.’
While most readers won’t be negotiating million-dollar Hollywood contracts, we all, at some point, know that fear of challenging inequality. Gillian stresses that We... asks women to get honest with what feels right for them. ‘I know what feels right for me,’ she says. ‘I know I feel better when I eat a certain way or exercise and the choice I make daily to either do it or not is mine. Whatever choice I make, I try not to beat myself up about it.’
Both women have children. Jennifer has three sons, Gillian two sons and a daughter, Piper, 22. I ask what she would hope a 22-year-old woman would take away from We....‘That it’s OK for her to be herself, no matter what that is – her colour, the nature of her skin and hair, her size, her sexual preference. I’d want her to know that however she comes is enough.’