When Kate T. Parker started shooting photos of her two daughters, both tomboys, she noticed that her favorite pictures were those in which her children were totally themselves — not posing and primping as girls are too often taught to do. She started shooting other girls, and soon her images went viral. That landed her a coffee-table book deal for Strong Is the New Pretty, and now she's on tour.
Westword caught up with Parker in advance of her March 14 talk about the book at Athleta Park Meadows in Lone Tree.
Westword: Tell me about your process creating Strong Is the New Pretty.
It's a photo project I've been working on for about six years now. It started at home. I'm a mom and a photographer, and I started shooting my two girls, who are now eight and eleven. I started shooting them every day, just to get better as a photographer. I noticed the strongest images and the ones that resonated the most with me were the ones where the girls were being themselves 100 percent. For my girls — they're tomboys — that means they were mostly dirty and emotional and fearless and not necessarily smiling at the camera. I was sort of capturing who they were. Then, when I had the opportunity to expand the project to all kinds of girls and all kinds of strength, I was really excited just to show the different ways that girls can be strong. It is not always in a package that looks like one of my daughters. I was really thankful for that opportunity.
At what point did you shift and start shooting other girls?
It started really small, just with my girls and their friends. The original set of images, they went viral on the Internet. I didn't set out shooting a book. I didn't set out to do anything, honestly, but capture my girls. It started slowly unfolding what the purpose of it was. After the images went viral and the book deal came about, I knew that I really wanted to have a bunch of different kinds of girls represented. Any girl who picked up the book, I wanted her to find somebody who she could relate to or somebody who inspired her.
Wow. That's pretty amazing that just fell into place.
It was not my intent at all. Today is the first day I just got the actual book that I ordered from Amazon in the mail. I was jumping around. It's unbelievable. Even though it came in the mail today, and I've seen the book a thousand times before, I'm still shocked and so thankful to be able to share the message of these girls.
Growing up yourself, how did you relate to these questions of strength or this idea of beauty vs. strength?
Growing up, I was the youngest of four, with two older brothers who both played soccer. Growing up, all I wanted to do was be with my brothers. I wanted to play soccer, mess around. I was just like my daughters, more focused on what I did and how many goals I scored as opposed to what I looked like. In the introduction to the book, I talk about how I had super-long, thick hair growing up. I was frustrated with it, and I wanted to look like my brothers, so I chopped off all my hair in second grade. My parents never once said, "Girls don't do that. Girls have long hair. No, you shouldn't play soccer. You should try something a little more feminine." Never once did they discourage me from being me. It never entered my mind that anything was wrong with that. So I really wanted to continue that with my daughters, and also have the opportunity to show other girls what is possible.
Obviously, growing up in this world, you've seen the flip side of that, where people are trying to prescribe gender roles for kids. I'm curious if you have a lot of interaction with those prescriptions of gender roles?
Well, you see it. Like, you still see it. Yesterday, Jameis Winston, the football player, was speaking at a kids' school. He told the boys, because they weren't paying attention, he told all the boys to stand up. He's like, "Girls, you're supposed to be quiet and silent." This week! I was like, are you kidding? It's still there! I think that the message is still there for girls.
My girls and I will walk into the store, and it will say "building sets" and it will say "girls' building sets." Or magazines for girls: I have one of these in the speech that I do. There's a magazine for boys that is like, "What is your dream job? What do you want to be when you grow up?" And the girls' magazine right next to it is, "What is your dream hair?" It wasn't how I saw myself. It wasn't how I saw my girls. I just felt this drive to do all that I could to keep combating those kind of gender roles and the stereotypes that are expected or that are left over. It's time to get them out.
Even in things like sports, you have people who are completely reasonable and not trying to prescribe gender roles for kids. Then all of a sudden, when it comes to sports, it's like football's over here (for boys); volleyball's over there (for girls).
I know — it's funny. My oldest daughter plays in a flag football league. They're an all-girls team, and they're the only all-girls team, and they play against boys. Nobody said, "No." Nobody said, "You don't play that." Honestly, it's really cool. She's eleven. This may be one of the only years where the girls are a little bit bigger and a little bit taller than the boys. They had their first win this year. It was just fun to watch.
Those football images are some of my favorite photos in the book.
You're talking about other kids seeing the book. Can you talk about how you imagine the book being used?
Books and magazines and movies — media that you consume as a kid — becomes more a part of you than stuff as you get older. You read it. You ingest it. It kind of becomes part of your truth. I hope it's sitting in people's living rooms and that girls pick it up and read it cover to cover. It's one of those things you leave out and you can give it to your daughter. You can give it to your mom. You can give it to a friend. Just one of those things that can be shared with anybody that you see as strong or anybody that you think needs a little lift.
Anything else you want to speak to in terms of the book or what's next with this?
I would love the opportunity to expand this project to girls around the world. I tried really hard to represent the United States pretty well, but there is so much more out there and so many more stories to tell. Also, I feel a real responsibility and honor that these girls in the book opened up and shared a little part of their lives and a little part of their story and trusted me to share their stories with the world. I just felt really thankful to the girls in the book.
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What do they think about it? They've seen it, I assume?
Yeah. I ordered hats for all the girls in the book, and my publisher sent out a copy of the book, so they got this book care-package, and they posted on social media and were really excited to see themselves and brought the books to school. One of the girls who's in the book has juvenile arthritis. She's a good friend of my daughter. She was in the hospital all last week with complications from it. I went into the hospital to visit her. She's wearing the Strong Is the New Pretty hat, and the book is right on her table, and her mom and dad were like, "Every time anyone comes in here, she opens to her pages, shows them what's going on." It made me so glad that they're proud to be a part of it.
Parker will present Strong Is the New Pretty at Athleta at Park Meadows, 8505 South Park Meadows Center Drive, in Lone Tree, at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, March 14. For more information, go to Athleta's website.