Kate Parker remembers being 7 and wanting her hair cut like her brothers: short, tangle-free and out of her way for soccer. “I realize now what a gift my parents gave me,” Parker told me. “They never once said, ‘Girls look this way,’ or, ‘Girls don’t do that.'”
Instead, her parents took her to a salon in her New Jersey suburb, where a stylist dutifully chopped off her locks. Radical? Not exactly. But unusual enough that the memory planted itself into Parker’s brain and grew, eventually, into the idea for “Strong Is the New Pretty: A Celebration of Girls Being Themselves,” Parker’s photo book.
“The day after I had my hair cut, I walked proudly into second grade,” she writes in the introduction. “My new look was the bomb. Not one single part of me thought it didn’t look good or girls should have long hair or it wasn’t feminine. … I had never been told that girls shouldn’t do sports, or be loud, or question everything, or get their hair cut exactly like their big brothers’.”
Now Parker, a professional photographer, has two daughters, ages 11 and 8, and she raises them with a similar you-be-you philosophy. In her book, Parker turns her lens toward girls who are living their loud, brave, strong, messy lives. Some are athletes, some are musicians, some are dancers, some are explorers. One of my favorite photos is of Emme, 7, perched on a tree branch. “We weren’t supposed to climb this high,” Emme admits. “But the view is better up here.”
Girls’ first names and ages accompany each photo, along with a short quote about what they’re doing and dreaming. Strong, Parker is careful to point out, doesn’t always mean muscles. “I wanted to show all kinds of girls from all kinds of pursuits,” she said. “The message is just allowing girls to be who they are and know their worth and value are determined by what they do and how they act and how kind they are and the feeling they leave people with, rather than how they look.”
It’s a message she got loud and clear as a kid, but one that gets muddled in our current climate, she said. “Strong has always been pretty,” she said. “What’s new is the pressure girls face today with Snapchat and Instagram filters and other pressures I didn’t face growing up. So I feel like it’s a message that bears repeating.”
The girls in the book repeat it beautifully.
“I am fearless,” says Maggie, 9.
“Yeah, I am a little muddy,” says Tayla, 6. “So what?”
“I love water polo and I can lift just one eyebrow and I speak Farsi and play tennis and I can make people laugh by making funny faces,” Sabrina, 6, says. “And I taught my little sister, Penny, to read when she was 3.”
“I’m small,” says Ivy, 9. “But I have a big voice and I know how to use it.”
Naturally, I gave my daughter, 11, a copy. I’m thinking about grabbing a few for my friends as well.
“The book is for girls, obviously,” Parker said. ‘But there are so many lessons for women too. We forget how awesome we once thought we were.”