Rosemary Mc Cabe is a household name. Her work as a journalist, stylist, blogger and more recently, personal trainer, has made her one of the most trusted influencers in Ireland today. She’s outspoken, authentic and original. I couldn’t wait to talk to her about how she feels about her body, having spent so much time in the public eye.
Can you start off by describing the attitude to beauty in your family home while you were growing up and how you think that affected you?
To be honest, there wasn’t a huge emphasis on beauty – makeup, bodies, body image – in my house growing up, at least not that I remember and definitely not from my mum. She rarely wears makeup, has no interest in fashion, and wouldn’t be hugely interested in or obsessed with her body – or any bodies. When I was around eight years old, my sister lost a lot of weight; she’d been overweight since she was a baby and I think, in her teens, she just decided she’d had enough. So I do remember going from being the thin sister to not being the thin sister, and all of a sudden realising that I was, in fact, a little bit chubbier than everyone else in school. Of course, in hindsight, I was perfectly healthy and beautiful, but at the time I made a lot of unflattering comparisons between myself and my schoolfriends.
During your teens, how did you feel about your body? Did you compare yourself to your friends or family? Do you remember who your role models (for example musicians, actresses, an older cousin etc) were and what, if anything, you did to look like them?
During my teens, I think the biggest issue for me was my friends and my peers. I remember the year I went to the Gaeltacht and we were all borrowing each other’s clothes – I borrowed a pair of size 8 pants from my roommate and barely got myself into them. I found that a bit humiliating; I knew that, as girls, we were supposed to be small – thinness was to be pursued at all costs. I read a lot of teen girls’ magazines, which had (in hindsight, disturbing) articles on how to conceal your “problem” areas and accentuate your “good” ones. When I was a little older, I remember once being told I looked a bit like Charlotte Church. I looked at her and Colleen Rooney as women whose bodies would be vaguely similar to mine – apple-shaped, curvy, fuller of waist, so to speak – and thought, if I worked out enough and ate healthily, I could look more like them. I tried all sorts of things to lose weight – Weight Watchers, kickboxing… but anything I tried for the sole purpose of changing a body I hated never lasted. I’d get really into it and then fade out of it again – maybe because I’d done four whole weeks and still wasn’t thin enough or beautiful enough. It was exhausting. Reading that back sounds very depressing, and when I look over my old diaries I do see frequent references to being fat and wanting to lose weight, but honestly when I think of my teens I don’t remember my body being a huge preoccupation. I was probably more worried about being unpopular or not being fancied by boys, and maybe both of those things (I thought) were to do with my body, but I didn’t necessarily see my body as a problem.
Do you remember ever feeling body shame as a child/teenager, or being body shamed by others?
I remember a doctor, when I was in secondary school, reaching out and grabbing hold of my tummy and saying to me, “you should try to get rid of this.” I was about 15. The ridiculous thing was, I was at the doctor’s because I had low blood pressure – which is not in any way related to weight, or at least definitely not excess weight. I was really humiliated. I somehow thought that, due to all of my magazine reading, I had managed to hide my fatness really well – and it was that moment when I realised that everyone else could see I was fat, too. It wasn’t just in my head.
How, if at all, did your relationship with your body change from childhood through your teen years and into your adult life? How do you think this has affected your mental health?
To be honest, I was always kind of… distrustful of my body. I’m not sure that’s the right word, but it’s somewhere between neutral and hating – it didn’t preoccupy me, I didn’t think about it all day, every day, but I firmly believed that my entire life would be better if I lost weight. My being fat – and honestly, I wasn’t even very fat, just fatter than my friends which, to me, was too fat – was the reason I didn’t have a boyfriend, the reason I wasn’t popular, the reason I struggled with sport… If I was thin, all of these things would melt away with the fat cells themselves. But like I said, I didn’t think about it all the time. I didn’t cry myself to sleep over it – and I kind of thought, I mustn’t be that bothered by it, because if I was, I’d lose weight. I used to think that I’d love to have the willpower to have an eating disorder – I couldn’t even do the Concern 24 Hour Fast. It was such a fucked up way to think about my body, food, willpower and control. In my twenties I think I kind of decided, you have a shit, fat body, so just get over it. Concentrate on other things. Concentrate on being a good person. Become a good writer. Be smart. You have more to offer the world than your body. Your shit, fat body doesn’t matter if you can be really clever and funny and entertaining. Maybe nobody will notice. It wasn’t so much upsetting to me as it was humiliating; I felt like my body consistently let me down. I was humiliated by it. When I was sweating, when I was rubbish at sport, when I had to give up running because I had shin splints. It was all because of my fat body. In a way, I think it taught me to focus on other things, which I think is a positive – because ultimately, we aren’t our bodies. That’s important. But on the other hand, I think I dissociated from it too much. It was the other. My body was my enemy. It took me a long time to get used to, say, sitting down naked in front of my partner, or even – God, even sitting on a sun lounger while wearing a bikini, and not feeling huge shame about my stomach. It makes me angry to think of the hours I’ve wasted.
If you haven’t had kids, how do you feel about how it will affect your body, and your relationship to it?
To be honest, I don’t think I’m going to have kids – so that’s kind of a moot point too!
As you get older, do you feel your attitude to beauty change? And are you concerned about the effect that aging will have on your body?
Hmmmm. I don’t really know. I don’t worry too much about ageing, but I’m in kind of a privileged position in that I have good skin, at least facially, and I probably look quite young for my age. I’ve occasionally wondered if I’d get Botox, if I was particularly lined… I do have a few lines on my neck that bother me, but only when I think about them, which is about twice a year. I think, in the last few years, my attitude to my body, to “my” beauty, has shifted drastically. It sounds trite, but I discovered weight lifting. I lost a bit of weight, which at the time I was delighted about, and then I put almost all of it back on again without even noticing, and now I just don’t care. I’m stronger than I’ve ever been and fitter than I’ve ever been and I don’t feel humiliated or betrayed by my body any more. I’ve totally shifted my life focus and become a personal trainer – and with that, loads of other things have changed. I cut all my hair off (although now I’m growing it back) – I think it felt like taking a weight off. When I thought of myself as fat, I thought of my hair as a shield of sorts; having big, bouncy curls distracted from my fat face. When I stopped worrying about being fat, I stopped worrying about whether or not I had a fat face, and whether or not my hair accentuated or disguised that. I stopped wearing make-up – now, I probably wear it twice a week, at most, and I take it off the minute I come in the door. I wear leggings to work now and I’m not ashamed of my bum wobbling in them, or of the potential camel toe… it’s just a body. It’s my body and it’s a strong body and it’s a capable, functional body. I don’t need it to be anything else – to look like anything else or to do anything else.
Do you think that men and women are equally subjected to unrealistic beauty standards?
Equally, no, but I do think that the pressure on men is growing. It would be easy to kind of think, now you’ll know what it feels like, but this isn’t a matter of men vs women. It’s not men who put pressure on women to look a certain way – it’s society. It’s our culture; it’s our business culture; it’s capitalism; it’s an industry that makes millions out of making women feel that they’re almost good enough. I think the growth of social media and particularly Instagram has a lot to do with the pressure men now feel to be body beautiful, to be sexy and attractive and muscular, but by that same token I think social media has increased that pressure on women – because now we just have to open up our phones to see tens of thousands of women whose bodies we “should” aspire to have.
Do you remember one stand out moment in your life that highlighted to you how you felt abut your body, whether positive or negative?
I don’t remember exactly the moment it happened, but I know that, in the past two years, my motivation for training – for exercising, and loving exercise – has totally changed. I started training because I hated my body and wanted to change it. But now, I train because I love my body. I train because I suffer from depression, and it definitely helps clear my head (but medication helps too, and I’m not one to say “just go for a walk and you’ll be grand!”). I train because I am heavy, and being heavy means I can lift a lot of heavy weight and that feels awesome. I train because I’m competitive – I want to beat my own previous times and weights and achievements. And I train because I love how I feel afterwards: smug
If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about your relationship to your body, what would it be?
Again, this sounds so trite – and like such a shill for my new career! – but, if I could go back and tell myself one thing, it would be: lift weights. I spent so many years of my life feeling like I was the least sporty person in the world. I would never be good at anything physical. I would never win a race or make a team or score a point. I would never be athletic. I just didn’t realise that the kind of body I have – muscular and strong and powerful – can actually do some amazing things. I think, for so long, I was so ashamed of being heavy, that it had never occurred to me that actually, there are some sports for which being heavy can be seen as having an advantage. It’s an incredibly empowering thing – being strong and getting stronger and feeling strong and capable and so proud. I never thought my body would do anything for me to feel proud of.