IN CONVERSATION: Catherine Grace O’Connell

If there is one woman who completely shares my passion in the fight against ageism it’s fellow warrior Catherine Grace O’Connell, founder of Forever Fierce : Midlife Matters and CEO of Forever Fierce Media. Spectacularly inspirational to women across the globe, Catherine is dedicated to shifting ageist perceptions to ones that are relevant, vibrant, empowering and authentic. I caught up with Catherine recently to chat about her journey of survival and navigating the ageist notions of midlife and beyond.

Firstly, your recent photo shoot and article – I Got Naked in Austin – was stunningly beautiful, authentic and empowering. What was your motivation behind this idea?

It was a fun way to celebrate turning 60! The idea came about during a conversation with my business partner. I was feeling the effects of the last year, lockdown, the pandemic, the lack of normalcy and losing so many of my daily routines. I wasn’t feeling or looking my best. I sensed I wasn’t alone! I decided to use the 60 days leading up to turning 60 to whip myself into shape to look and feel my best for a very special nude photo shoot in Austin and to bring my audience along with me. I needed inspiration and felt other women needed it too! The idea of doing a shoot ‘sans’ clothing was terrifying at first. Announcing it on social media forced me to have some public accountability and allowed me to share what I was doing in the way of fitness, nutrition and an overall healthy lifestyle. Basically, it motivated me to get back to the basics, healthy living from the inside out. It was the perfect jump start to get me feeling like me again. What better motivation than to have yourself captured completely naked?

I think it’s quite hard for many women, particularly as we age, to feel comfortable naked. Did you feel an element of vulnerability or was it a liberating experience?

I was very surprised at how liberating it felt for me. I don’t think I would have felt the same way had I been in my 20s or 30s. I was raised in a pretty strict household. Being photographed naked was a huge stretch for me. I had a vision for the shoot, which was to slowly lead up to getting naked. Let’s just say my photographer, Kevin Steele, had an entirely different vision. Our very first shot was 100 per cent stark naked. I found myself just going with the flow and having a lot of fun in the process. Kevin said that he was very surprised at how comfortable I was throughout the shoot. I do feel that’s the beauty of getting older. There’s a lot of grace. I know my body is far from perfect. I have a lot of scars, war wounds, accumulated over the years. This shoot wasn’t about perfection. It was about empowerment.

Can you tell us about The Forever Fierce Revolution and how it all began?

Absolutely! I know that we share a passion around the subject of ageism. We recently changed the name to Forever Fierce: Midlife Matters to evolve as we evolve. I launched the community in spring 2017, following a social service campaign called The Fierce 50. I saw a need to bring women together, women over 50 at the time, in a collaborative, supportive community. Today there is no age barrier to join the group. It’s a community designed to celebrate women at midlife and beyond. When I started on social media in the summer of 2015, I was stunned by how invisible we were. It was also a time when women were very hesitant to tell their age. Being a woman over 50 wasn’t seen as a positive. I decided to shout my age to the rooftops and to invite other women to join me. Forever Fierce has evolved over the years. We have women from all over the world and many of them have become close friends. We are there to lift one another up and to empower ourselves as we age, shifting the perception of older women to one that is vibrant and empowered.

What advice would you give to midlife and beyond women who begin to feel invisible and less confident with age?

I would ask them to investigate their own beliefs around aging and ageism. We live in a culture that is youth obsessed. We are basically brainwashed at an early age to see aging as a bad thing. It’s easy to take on these beliefs without any conscious recognition. It’s so important for women at midlife and beyond to take their power back. Society tells us to be invisible so we must be even more visible. Confidence doesn’t come from anyone but ourselves. An ageist society creates a lot of ‘friction’ for us as we age. That very friction, or challenge, can be the most powerful fuel that forces us to rise, to be the phoenix coming up from the ashes. I have never felt as confident or as empowered in my life as I do now at 60. I believe in embracing getting older, while also doing my best to defy and disrupt aging on every level. There is so much wisdom and beauty found in decades of life experience. That’s what is invaluable. That’s what our culture is missing – understanding that decades on this planet bring with it a gift that can’t be bought at any price and a wisdom that is in great need.

Do you think we are beginning to see a progressive shift away from ageist attitudes when it comes to women, and a more positive older female representation across the media and social platforms?

I would have to say that we are seeing a bit of a shift, certainly not a gigantic sea change as many of us had hoped for. Initially, it was more about brands adding in a silver haired woman to represent all women over 35, which is ridiculous. We are so much more than one woman with grey hair. For heaven’s sakes, at 60, I don’t even have grey hair! I would love to see more conversations centered around what’s important, such as sharing the wisdom of the ages. I’ve learned so much about myself and the world over the decades. I understand life and myself in a way that wasn’t possible when I was younger. There is immense value in that. We are missing everything when we focus solely on our youthful exterior. There is so much grace and beauty on the inside.

From my experience in working with many brands, it’s the youngsters who are crafting the advertising and marketing campaigns. Most of them are in their 20s and have no idea how to reach us or how to market us. They see women over 35 all lumped together as ‘old’ and not as multiple demographics with infinite wisdom and possibility. I think we need more conversations among the generations to begin softening the divide and opening up understanding and compassion. When we share our stories, we realise we want the same things in life and that we aren’t all that different on the inside.

Do you think age still influences our fashion choices or are we becoming bolder and embracing our own individual choices and style?

I am definitely far bolder in my fashion choices than I’ve ever been. I do feel that women are beginning to embrace their inner beauty and it’s showing in the way they dress. I’m fortunate to connect with women all over the world and I can definitely see a shift in the level of confidence over the years. I love seeing media publications like Who What Wear promoting older women, not as a stereotype but as women who love fashion and beauty and who dress for themselves not others. It’s the stereotypes and stigmas around aging that continue to hold us back. We must change the conversation from a negative to a positive. It is about showing the positive side of getting older. I’m seeing this more and more on social media with women at midlife and beyond beginning to own their beauty, much of which is done via fashion and personal style. Style is a powerful way to speak, to share our inner voice, without saying a word. I’m all for women at midlife and beyond going big and bold.

Hardest challenge you’ve had to face?

That would be surviving a life-threatening illness. I suppose that’s why I wanted to celebrate turning 60 as I’m very fortunate to be alive.

By the time a woman reaches midlife, she will most likely face some health challenges, and I had been facing them for some time when I was diagnosed with late state Lyme Disease in the spring of 2014. It wasn’t long before I spiraled down to the point of almost losing my life. Surviving Lyme Disease and a ‘near death experience’ was literally the fight of a lifetime. It’s odd that it takes almost losing your life to realise that you really want to live. I learned so much through that battle. I had to dig to the deepest depths to look at all parts of myself, the good, the bad and the ugly. I had to do a lot of painful inner work to heal past trauma. It was the hardest work I’ve ever done but also the most rewarding. I like to think of midlife as a powerful pivot point. It’s the time in a woman’s life when she stops fighting with herself and begins to fight for herself. That’s what I did. Fighting with ourselves is exhausting. It’s a losing battle. The battle worth winning is the one for your authentic self. Almost losing my life forced me to fight for myself and to discover who I truly am and not who I thought I was. 

Accomplishment you are most proud of?

There are so many wonderful accomplishments that have come from this wild and crazy journey. This month, I was featured in a two-page spread called ‘Celebrate Your Age’ in a national magazine, Woman’s Day. A huge honour that was incredibly humbling. I’ve dreamed of being in a magazine my entire life. It’s pretty insane when those dreams materialise, especially at the age of 60, when you’re supposed to slip away into the sunset or a rocking chair. Seeing myself on those pages was absolutely amazing. I love magazines like Woman’s Day that are run by women and celebrate women of all ages doing inspiring things with their lives.  

Who is your greatest inspiration?

That’s an easy one, Brene Brown. She has changed so many lives for the better. She’s ordinarily extraordinary. She has a way of conveying wisdom in such a relatable manner. She has a gift in touching hearts and transforming lives in the most down to earth way. She’s the woman I dream to be! I would love to be able to inspire women around the world as she has inspired me. Her Ted Talk on Vulnerability is one that I watch over and over again. There is something so beautiful and powerful in her very presence. She has definitely been the catalyst for many women at midlife and beyond to find their voices and to step into their greatness.

If you could go back, what advice would you give to your younger self?

I have so many things that I would say to her. She was terribly insecure. I would hug her and let her know that I love her. I would tell her that she’s a special soul and that she’s here to do big things. I would let her know that she has the power to change the world but that she won’t understand that for a very long time. I would tell her to never ever give up, no matter how dark things may seem. I would encourage her to spend a lot of time on the inside, where things matter most. I would tell her that she has a beautiful heart with so much love to give.

Top beauty ‘must have’ in your makeup bag?

Lip, lip and more lip! It’s the one thing I can’t live a day without. Lipstick topped off with lip gloss. Colourful lips make everything brighter!

And finally, your favourite quote?

“Don’t deny your age. Defy your age.” – Catherine Grace O’Connell

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