“This whole thing began because I was just a mom taking pictures of my daughters,” says Kate T. Parker, an Atlanta-based photographer. “They weren’t posing. They were just being themselves.” Later, when she looked through the images, Parker noticed something. “It’s rare to see portraits of girls who aren’t ingratiating themselves to the camera, who look strong, fierce, dirty. It hit me: I can show girls that they don’t have to change for anyone to think they’re beautiful.”
Parker posted the images on her website and sent out a link to some of her favorite photo blogs. After the Huffington Post took notice, the attention snowballed. Parker found her work—which she had then dubbed “Strong Is the New Pretty”—featured on the Today show, BuzzFeed, and Glamour. Since then, she’s been photographing girls around the country for a book, Strong Is the New Pretty, out in March.
This project started in a very small, personal way. How has it changed since then? At first I was photographing my kids and their friends. But I realized they represent one type of girl: They all play sports, and they’re not particularly diverse. With the book, my goal was to shoot all kinds of girls in all kinds of places: musical girls, artistic girls, girls who are fighting cancer, girls who love nature, girls who dance. I spent a year and a half trying to find the greatest variety of subjects that I could.
Many of your images celebrate athleticism in girls, but you say that your message isn’t just about being sporty. When the pictures first came out, there were some comments like, “My daughter doesn’t play soccer; she likes princesses. What’s wrong with that?” But I just want girls to see that being yourself is worthy and beautiful. They’re bombarded with so many messages: You need to be sexy. You need to be pretty. You need to be popular. And at that age [adolescence] you internalize it more than at any other time.
Having photographed so many girls for this book, I’ve seen that these kids really do believe they’re badasses, and they have such confidence. And then puberty hits, and it gets lost. I wanted to do as much as I could to preserve that confidence and sense of self. I want them to see: I’m not the only girl that wants something different than just being pretty.
In your book, the chapter titles each include the word “strong.” How can girls maintain strength and confidence as they grow beyond childhood? I know I said the book isn’t about being athletic, but for me it has been sports. I played soccer through college, and my teammates and I were never worried about how much we weighed; we weren’t worried about guys. I was more focused on what my body could do as opposed to what it looked like. And having something to pour your time and energy into is a good thing; you don’t have time to obsess over celebrities or get sucked into social media. I say to my daughters, who are now 8 and 11, “I don’t care what it is. It could be art, music, photography, writing. But you gotta have something.”
This article originally appeared in our January 2017 issue.