Photos by Kate T. Parker, written by Stephanie Boozer
When Kate T. Parker began photographing her daughters and their Atlanta-area friends several years ago, she had no inkling those portraits would create a national stir. Nor did she know her name would one day grace the New York Times Bestseller List, or that parents, children, teachers, and the media would declare her a leader of change, the woman behind a movement celebrating the multi-faceted identities of both girls and boys.
What she did know going in was that her daughters and their friends didn’t fall under the conventional definitions of what makes a girl “pretty.” What Kate saw in those first portraits was a quiet strength and a confidence in each girl’s way of being in the world. The full impact of those portraits didn’t hit her until she saw them collectively displayed on a gallery wall. She’d been disappointed that none of the prints in that early show had sold, but Kate’s competitive drive worked that frustration into an opportunity.
“I decided not to take it as an indictment about my skill or photography,” she says. “I realized that the pictures were too specific for people to want in their homes. What I saw on the wall in that gallery was a larger story about not wanting kids to change who they were to be beautiful or celebrated.”
Seeking peer feedback and possibly a new outlet for the work, Kate sent the images to blogs she followed, and the series soon went viral. CNN and The Today Show started calling. Her honest portrayals of everyday girls, brimming with implicit empowerment, set off a movement that would result in her first book, “Strong is the New Pretty: A Celebration of Girls Being Themselves” (Workman, 2017).
What followed was a whirlwind of book tours and lectures, and then a wall calendar and companion journal for girls, to help them discover and own their strengths and weaknesses, and thus empower themselves. All of this pushed Kate from her comfort zone behind the lens, and forced her to conquer a reluctance over public speaking and frequent travel. But the importance of her message made the discomfort a worthwhile tradeoff.
As she traveled the country, talking to parents and teachers and girls of all ages, she noticed the little boys tagging along, observing it all. People began to ask when she would do a book about boys. “I thought, ‘boys don’t need a book, boys are fine,’” Kate says. “But then I started doing the research and talking to parents, and I was floored. Boys were not fine. Once [they] step out of that box of athlete and leader, there’s nowhere for boys to go. I wanted to take the boxes off the conventional definitions of what it means to be human. I wanted to show that strong and kind and vulnerable don’t have to cancel each other out.”
What Kate discovered after hundreds of conversations was that boys, too, are complex beings with a range of emotions just as broad, and as deep as those of the girls. In this complicated “Me Too” climate, maybe boys did need more accurate representation — visual evidence that boys are not always bulletproof and tough. Emphasizing a sensitive, caring, empathetic and more well-rounded side of boys could help in the broader conversation emerging so loudly about gender stereotypes. Encouraging sensitive boys encourages sensitive men. Empowering girls empowers women.
When her second book, “The Heart of a Boy: Celebrating the Strength and Spirit of Boyhood” (Workman, 2019), debuted this past April, it immediately hit the New York Times Bestseller List. This was a shock to Kate; while her first book was a boat-rocking sensation, it never made that esteemed list. She says the most important part of the distinction is the sense of validation of everything she’d been working toward. Not only that, but devoted moms, coaches and teachers have flooded her social media accounts with love and praise and stories of young boys enamored with the book and feeling their own sense of validation.
“I try to live the message I’m telling kids: be brave, be yourself, be who you are.”
As a mother of daughters, Kate is grateful for the experience of working with boys, for her eyes being opened to their struggles, and their multifaceted personalities, strengths and weaknesses. And she’s grateful for the opportunities it’s created to partner with charities that share her message.
“These kids were sharing their stories with me and I felt so honored that I wanted to make it even more of a positive thing,” says Kate, who tries to give back through both monetary and photographic campaigns. She often partners with organizations that share her message, like Girls on the Run, Girl Up, The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, and The Boys and Girls Club of America.
The experience also has reminded her to walk what she talks. “I try to live the message that I’m telling kids: Be brave, be yourself, be who you are,” says Kate. “I sometimes forget it, though. I have to tell myself, ‘you’ve earned this, you be-long here, own it and be proud.’ When I’m afraid or feeling resistant, I do it anyway because this message is so important to me. If something is gnawing at you, listen to it. It’s your responsibility to pursue it and not ignore it. You can positively make a change in someone else’s life.”
“The message of my work is that you, just as you are, are worthy.”
What’s next for Kate? She’s currently working on a new book about courage in girls and women. This book will be more narrative driven, with more stories to accompany the photographs.
“As photographers, we’re in this uniquely good position,” she says. “We create content that’s beautiful every day. If you can combine photography and something else you’re passionate about, you’re so lucky to be able to do that. You can make change. So, make your voice heard in the larger world!”
Photos by Kate T. Parker, written by Stephanie Boozer