Just recently, TVNZ's Breakfast featured a guest by the name of Cat Coluccio. Cat had been invited on to talk about her Rock Your Jeans campaign – which she launched after reading a study which said most people surveyed thought women shouldn't wear jeans after age 53. Cat – life coach, personal trainer, motivational speaker and educator – found this doubly insulting.
First off, she turns 53 this year so it was "a little close to home". Second, she's more than a little tired of hearing what women in midlife should and shouldn't do. So she invited female denim aficionados worldwide – via her Facebook page Rocking Midlife – to post pictures of themselves in their jeans. The response was overwhelming. Women the world over, from age 40 upwards (the oldest 86) flooded her inbox and social media with pictures of themselves in their go-to wardrobe item.
"They were all so militant. One even said 'I'll be buried in my jeans!'" says Cat.
Sitting there in the TV studio, in her own fashionably ripped-at-the-knee denims – warm, smilingly outraged and articulate – Cat Coluccio cut a confident and likeable figure.
But the interesting part about that TV appearance is something I only discover when I rock up – yes, in my jeans – to meet Cat at an Auckland café. She is delighted, by the way, that we've "synchronised our outfits" – both of us in black leather jackets and denim. She's also thrilled that I am, clearly, a midlifer myself. More of that in a moment.
Cat's mission is to inspire women from their 40s and beyond to get out of our own way, follow our dreams – above all, to not wait for the perfect moment when we're 'fit enough', 'slim enough', 'confident enough'. And at the time of that Breakfast interview, Cat was very much following her own advice.
"I am at my biggest ever, so I have been holding myself back too, and thinking 'I can't go out and be visible and say stuff to encourage other women unless I lose 10kg," she tells me in her frank Aussie tones.
"Then when I did Breakfast I looked at the photos and initially I was horrified. But I thought 'Well, I have done it now. I've put my face out there at my biggest ever… I have to chuck that self-judgement away and get out there and be a voice."
What you realise very quickly talking to Cat is that she's eminently qualified to help women in the 'second act' of our lives, to help us to 'get in the game' – not because she's done the courses, the study and the reading. Which she has. But because she knows what it's like to feel judged, to undervalue yourself, to struggle with body issues, self-esteem and even depression.
"Everything I speak about is stuff that I have been through, go through."
Cat's career path and personal journey to date are made up of experiences and knowledge that have shaped her approach to the life coaching and online empowerment programmes she does now.
At 17 she travelled from her home town of Perth to study at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music for four years. She's been a high school teacher and professional saxophonist. She married her husband of 30 years, an Australian-born Italian – "It hasn't always been easy!", she laughs, but he is "incredibly supportive" – and had a son and a daughter.
Then at 44, after home schooling her kids for the last years of high school, "I did my own little midlife transformation".
She did a course to become a personal trainer because it was her dream to help people. "But not in a classroom."
Again she was embracing the approach she now urges others to adopt. Namely: once you've identified your passion, take action. It's your life, your choices – and you are never too old. When you know what you want, fight for it. Work hard and believe in yourself. All of which Cat had to do at the start of the PT course as she wasn't exactly gym instructor material.
"It was hilarious. I was totally unfit. But I set myself some goals. I was never going to come last in fitness tests, and I never did. It was freakin' hard work and an environment I was unfamiliar with. But I wanted to work with people and make a difference in their lives."
Then seven years working in a south Auckland gym taught her that body confidence is about so much more than exercise. So last year she launched a 12-week online Love Your Body programme with a strong focus on self-confidence and belief. As more and more women signed up, she identified where the greatest need was: women in midlife.
Out of that came the Rocking Midlife Facebook page (48,000 followers), private Facebook group (4000 members), and website, catcoluccio.co.nz.
"There was a newspaper article where, I think it was the World Health Organisation, they were redefining midlife as about 60."
She chuckles deeply: "You're not there yet babe! You're still a teenager, look at that!"
And the research is reassuring. Science is saying midlife isn't a fixed number, but is relative to how long we're expected to live. A 2015 Austrian study concluded we shouldn't consider ourselves as becoming old until we're within 10-15 years of our life expectancy. So given the average Kiwi female is expected to survive to around 83, we're really middle-aged until our late 60s.
"For my Facebook group, I make it roughly 40 and upwards. And I don't cap the top end because it's a state of mind too. I've got 70-plus year olds, nearly 80, chatting away to the girls."
So what, according to what she hears from the women she communicates with, is our primary midlife issue?
"I did a poll among the group; and the main thing, it wasn't body weight or menopause, which is what I thought, but 'How do I get my mojo back'? Which I thought was fascinating. That is where I love motivating women. You know, 'You still have a voice, you still have time, you can still start over'. Yep, life might be different. Your body is changing. You are losing parents. We are facing empty nests. A lot of women in the group are facing single life at this time of life as well, which is hard. But you can still find joy, you can still get out and do something, make an impact in the world."
So out of all the things she'd like midlife women to know, what's the real biggie? "Lose the fear. Of being judged. Of thinking you might fail, or be embarrassed. If women could lose that fear of acceptance, they could just do so much more."
For her, the Breakfast show was just the latest in a long line of fears faced and overcome. Attending the music conservatorium at 17 was a huge deal in terms of being judged. Despite a teacher who "gave me hell" for four years, saying she was never good enough, she had to break through that to get on stage. She almost gave up. But "I didn't let his judgement shut me down". She's since made an album, recorded on others and toured the world.
Does she believe there's such a thing as innate resilience?
"Yes. I think some people do have an innate resilience. I am actually not one of them. I had to choose every day to get in there and go at it again, keep going. It was like building a muscle."
It's this theme of keeping going, of 'fighting for yourself' that is central to Cat's message to women.
"It's too easy just to coast along. The women who reached out to me when I was a trainer, those who are reaching out to me now online, are taking that first step. They are fighting for themselves. It's showing they still value themselves enough."
So okay. Let's say I go to her and I'm not exactly deeply unhappy, just a bit meh. I'm say, 55, not thrilled about my fitness, in an okay job but not passionate about it... What would she say to me?
"First of all 'How are you looking after yourself? How's the self-care? That's a priority. They need to be looking at their health care, be it their supplements or whatever. Plus they need to be exercising, there's no way round that. And women need to stop thinking of exercise as being for weight. It's for health. Then they can look at their nutrition. That's a no-brainer. If a woman is going to fight for herself she has to start with her health. If you lose your health you are stuffed.
So it's a habit that needs to be put in place. Then I'd ask, what do you want to do? What did you want to do when you were a kid? What would you do if money was no object?"
She wants women to find their purpose, and not just for themselves.
"A woman who is fulfilling her purpose in life is going to make a difference, change people's lives around her. That's how you affect your communities. I want women to do what they're called to do regardless of ageism."
The big thing she works on with women is self-belief.
"You know you can do it and if it doesn't work, dust yourself off, pick yourself up, change tack and keep going. I've had a number of women saying they found the courage to try something they'd always wanted to do. With one it was as simple as wanting to go horse-riding. A couple of others really wanted to get out of the job they were in but needed the courage to step out, let go of the known, to do something entrepreneurial.
Obviously they'd taken care of the financial side of it so I wasn't being silly saying 'chuck your job in', but I walked them through the steps of finding the courage. And telling them, 'You can do this, and though you don't have the corporate title any more you're still a person, you're still valid'. Because that is a huge one for women too. Defining themselves by their role."
Cat believes the support of a partner is important. In terms of a husband who's backed her all the way, she has been "incredibly blessed". And if your partner isn't supportive?
"If you're determined to honour your marriage and keep that together, then just do the work on yourself and continue to give back to the marriage. Otherwise go seek help professionally."
But whether you're married, single or divorced, she can't emphasise enough the importance of friends.
"Building good female relationships is absolutely critical. The reality is with the mortality rate the way it is, we're gonna need each other because our partners aren't going to last as long as us! You can't look at your husband and expect everything from him. That's not fair either. You need good solid friends you work things through with."
I'm expecting her to preach the benefits of physically turning up at a friend's door with cake, of not doing our bonding via computer screen and a mouse, but no.
"Whether it's online, on the telephone, or whatever. Women in particular need to reach out and connect and be able to be vulnerable with other women. And this is a big thing of mine, to be vulnerable without man bashing. In my group I don't allow the women to do the 'little dig' cartoons against men. It's not just because I am married. You may be the mother of a son, I have a dad I love, I've got brothers. I don't see why we need to put them down while working on ourselves and working against ageism."
And on that topic, I think it's high time we talked about the Rock Your Jeans project and the study that prompted it. Why oh why did the survey conclude that we need to farewell our beloved denims once we hit 53?
"Because apparently we all fall apart in the changing room crying because they don't fit us so therefore it must be too traumatic."
I'm laughing. Cat joins in.
"I know right? It was so ludicrous. I was making a bit of a joke of it, I popped it on my Facebook page; of course the women just went 'boom!'. That went mental, reached like 35,000 within 24 hours so I thought, 'Let's have a bit of fun with this'. That's when I put the call out – 'Alright ladies, send me your photos'. The women all just rallied. I had women from around the world; you can tell the really glamorous ones, they are all from a particular midlife group in America that I link up with, they're all the fashion bloggers, and the oldest was 86 in the photos.
"The key is it's not about what you wear. It was really a metaphor for something bigger. That it's time people stopped telling women in midlife how to dress, how to look, whether we're allowed to wear makeup, not wear makeup, dye our hair or not dye our hair. It was like the last straw. That's why I did that."
For all that we don't like being dictated to, it's a tricky one. Because terribly outdated and sexist as it is, for me personally the fear of being 'mutton dressed as lamb' stalks me on every clothes shopping trip. So what does Cat reckon; does she have rules for herself as to what she will and won't wear?
"Any 'rules'" – she says this with sardonic emphasis – "are my own self-imposed ones, what I feel comfortable about. Is it appropriate for the occasion? So of course I wouldn't wear a miniskirt to a wedding. Then it's according to my body type. You know I'm carrying a bit more weight so I'm not going to wear skin-tight lycra. I will wear what feels comfortable and what represents me. It's not about rules. It's about ageism."
And what does the woman who's already survived several reinventions envision for her own future?
"I want to do much more speaking. Workshops, events. I'd love to go up and down New Zealand with some fun Rocking Midlife events, where women can have a glass of bubbles and celebrate. But talk also about health, and self care, and pursuing your dreams."
I'm in. I may even buy myself a new pair of 501s just for the occasion.
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