I saw Strong in the New Pretty one day while shopping in a book store with my daughters. I was intrigued by the title at first, because my husband and I were in the middle of watching one of the Orange is the New Black seasons, so for me, it was the word play that caught my eye. Words get me.
I flipped through the pages of Strong is the New Pretty and saw its power and thought, I need to get that book for my daughters and for me.
I finally purchased the book on my birthday in 2017, after taking a small road trip to see friends in Calgary and read through most of the chapter introductions by Kate T. Parker immediately after my purchase, which was about an hour before meeting a friend for supper.
I finally took a good look at the cover that Kate T. Parker, the author and photographer of Strong is the New Pretty (Workman) and the upcoming The Heart of a Boy (Workman, April 2019).
I had a chance to study it and read the caption of the girl, Kate’s daughter Ella, wrote about the photo.
“I was really scared for my first triathlon. My mom took this shot of me the night before and told me that even though I was afraid to race, to try to look tough and fearless. I did, and when my mom showed me this shot, it made me believe I could be as tough as I look.”—Ella, age 9
And there was my Oprah “A Ha” moment. All the things Kate wrote about and took photos of were exactly in line what had been going on in my head for years with a variety of youth-focused programs (mainly for girls) I had created and/or led with the hopes of boosting their self-confidence and belief in their ability to do so much more than they imagined.
I was giddy with this book under my arm and my belief that I could just call up Kate and chat with her about her photos and the ideas I had about creating a program for girls that combined physical activity and mindfulness, today known as UBU. It helped me acknowledge my fear of failure; meet with what felt like 400 people over three months; and ask anyone and everyone for help/advice about my program idea. Then, I put the work in. I hustled. I took courses, I researched, I created a website, I wrote blog posts, I made posters, I was ready to fail if I had to, but learn from it.
And UBU was officially launched in April 2018.
So, even if a casual coffee chat may have been a bit unrealistic for me to ask of Kate, now a famous author/photographer/philanthropist, I did get some direct Instagram responses from her. And she eventually connected me with her team at Workman Publishing … that did not yet completely shut down the idea of me doing a phone interview with Kate one day, but made it clear that right now is just not possible due to the holidays, Kate’s upcoming release of The Heart of a Boy, and her being a working mom to Ella and Alice (whom, you’ll see amazing pics of if you follow Kate’s social media platforms: IG @kateparker; Twitter @ktparkerphoto).
Not to completely crush my hopes, Workman forwarded me an existing Q&A Kate completed pertaining to The Heart of a Boy and said I can post it on my sites if I wanted to. It’s not a coffee chat, and Kate and I are not BFFs because of it, but as I read through it, I saw value in sharing it with my small circle of followers. Maybe it will inspire you to take on a new writing/photography project, start a youth program, try a triathlon, dance with your dog and not care who is watching, or just believe in your worth a bit more than you did yesterday.
It helped me think about the next steps for UBU, as Kate acknowledged the #metoo movement, and her concern about abandoning girls if she divided her professional focus between boys and girls. I wondered the same things.
I have been asked numerous times if and when I’ll start a UBU program for boys. And it’s not that I don’t think there’s a need or that I don’t want to do it, I just need to remain authentic with my intentions of the program. I feel now as the New Year approaches, I can do that and integrate an element with boys, but it will be different than the program I do with girls.
I will include sports teams of all genders under the UBU umbrella by incorporating elements of mindfulness (a different kind of dryland training) while boosting team building through physical and leadership activities. Having grown up playing sports and now taking on more challenging running races, I still see the need for supports (teammates on and off the course/field etc.), belief in self, grit, effective leadership, and humility. I want to share my experiences and knowledge and am acknowleding my worth and ability to actually do this.
Here is the Q&A Kate T. Parker did with her publisher, Workman Publishing:
How did the Strong is the New Pretty photography project get started – and were you surprised by the reception it got?
Kate: “Strong is the New Pretty started very small and personally for me. I was photographing my daughters in their daily life and simply wanted to get better as a photographer and capture them as they were. I noticed the strongest images were the ones of my girls truly being themselves. For them, this came through as emotional, messy – their hair was (mostly) unbrushed – loud, muddy, fearless, and not necessarily smiling for the camera. I wanted them to know this was enough – they didn’t need to change who they were, clean up or smile for me to be worth or beautiful. This was the start of Strong is the New Pretty.
I was so thankful to expand the project from my girls and their friends to girls all over North America. Girls whose strength looked different from my girls. Girls who inspired, who persevered. And yes, I was shocked by the reception. I really wanted this book to get in the hands of as many girls as it could since I believe in the message so much, but I couldn’t imagine that it was so well received and loved. I still can’t believe that I get to create these books and help spread this message – that this is my job. It’s a dream come true.”
Strong is the New Pretty resonated with thousands of people across the nation, from celebrities like Drew Barrymore, Kate Winslet, Nicole Kidman and even the Spice Girls, to little girls dressing up as the cover image for Halloween. Why did you feel the need to shift your focus from girls to boys?
Kate: “Honestly, I didn’t see the need at first. I, like I suspect a lot of others, assumed that boys didn’t need this message of self-acceptance. I thought our boys are fine – we need to focus on the girls. The girls are the ones struggling and we need to help there. And when a boy would ask me “Miss Kate, are you doing a boys book?” or “don’t you want to shoot me?, my instincts were to say no. In my head, our boys were a-ok – it was girls who needed a voice. Boys’ voices were heard and didn’t need any help or amplification from me.
When my publisher asked me to consider shooting the boys book, I said I’d shoot a few images to see how it felt. I was worried about “abandoning” the girls. And I definitely didn’t want to do that. At the time, I just didn’t see the need for this message for them.
So, I scheduled a few shoots and started doing some research, talking with parents of boys, reading books about raising boys and masculinity. I wanted information about how best to approach this.
And I quickly realized how much this is needed. Immediately. The definition of what is acceptable for a girl to be is pretty narrow. The definition for a boy? Even more narrow. The expectations that are heaped on the shoulders of our boys are enormous. Be strong. Be a leader. Be confident. Be athletic. Don’t be weak or emotional and you certainly can’t cry. I was insensitive to fact that our boys are suffering in different ways than girls, without voice and without the support that girls have. From this realization, The Heart of a Boy was born.”
How did the Heart of a Boy photography series start – and how does it relate to Strong is the New Pretty?
Kate: “The message of my work, with Strong is the New Pretty and The Heart of a Boy, is, at its core, exactly the same message. That you, just as you are, are worthy. I am imploring children (and parents) to celebrate themselves as they are.
This is not necessarily a message specific to girls or boys, but more of a human message. I am trying to make a change with my work, to shift a paradigm and alter expectations and way we view girls and boys. I want to encourage both girls and boys to be fearless, kind, curious, brave, and strong.
We need to raise boys that are confident in their own selves both for their wellbeing and to support strong and empowered women.”
As someone who has built a career from taking empowering pictures of girls, what struck you as different when photographing boys?
Kate: “I am lucky in that when I am photographing my subjects for these projects, I get to capture these kids doing the things they love the most, the things they’re best at, the things they are passionate about. I love that I get to shoot my subjects where they are most comfortable and in their respective “element”.
I truly did not notice any difference in the shoots. Shy kids were shy, outgoing kids were hamming it up, older kids were concerned about looking “cool”, little kids wanted to see the pictures I shot immediately. It wasn’t gender specific. However, I did notice a marked difference in trying to get quotes to accompany the shots for the boys. It was so much harder for these boys! I’ve been thinking about the reason for this and wondering if asking boys to talk about their feelings and goals and struggles is something that is out of the ordinary and uncomfortable. It was super easy for the girls. An interesting thing to note, for sure.”
Why is this book so important now?
Kate: “It is time to talk about our boys. We’ve all lived the headlines on a daily basis and have been forced to confront #metoo, school shootings, bullying, and other toxic behavior. There’s a national conversation going on about what defines masculinity and how to raise sons to become good people. We need to look at what we are saying and showing our boys about who they are allowed to be.
We need to redefine our expectations of our boys.”
What themes emerged as you started taking photos of the boys in the book?
Kate: “I noticed that just like I did with Strong is the New Pretty, the kids who are succeeding, doing well and achieving their goals aren’t necessarily the smartest kids. They have two things (1) grit and (2) a support system. The grit allows them to stay strong and have faith in themselves in the face of adversity. And I think the reason many kids have that grit is because they have support. They have someone in their life who has their back, who they can count on, who they love and loves them unconditionally.”
How did the subjects in your book find self-confidence, and what lessons would you encourage them to pass along?
Kate: “Just like girls, boys found their self-confidence through action. Boys who were confident and proud of who they are were put themselves out there and pursued their passions regardless of what others thought or said. Whether it was creating another world in a comic book series, teaching karate, learning to do make-up, playing quarterback or starting a charity, these boys were supported in their passions. That support makes all the difference.”
Why is it important for a boy to embrace all aspects of himself?
Kate: “Humans are complicated and multifaceted. Girls and boys. Men and women. We are getting better at it with our girls, but we need to recognize and celebrate this in our boys too. The thoughtfulness, the emotional, the empathy should be encouraged as much as possible with our boys.
I want to acknowledge with this book that you can have both strength and softness. Boys can be football players and tough as nails on the field, and tender-hearted and emotional off. Being both is possible, and these qualities don’t cancel each other out. We are all many things. We are complicated and rich! Boys often face a simplistic view of what expected and desired from them. That must change.”
How can boys retain their ability to be kind, sensitive, creative and curious when they graduate into adulthood?
Kate: “One of the thoughts I had that helped me realize that I wasn’t abandoning girls was the thought that if we allowed our boys to be who they truly are, they would, in turn, do it for our girls as well. Giving boys the permission to be fully themselves gives them the chance to grow up to be men who allow and appreciate girls and women for being their own person.
It’s a good start.”
What were the most surprising acts of kindness you saw while documenting the boys in your book?
Kate: “I was lucky enough to photograph two brothers in Arizona, one of the brothers is severely autistic and non-verbal. Nate, the younger of the two, really amazed me. He said “my brother didn’t choose autism but it chose him and we love him.” And throughout our whole shoot, he’d make sure his older brother was looking towards the camera, making sure he was turned the correct way. Nate was so concerned about his brother. He was filled with so much compassion and empathy. I was really taken by that. You don’t see that side of boys a lot. It was so nice to witness. That’s not what is celebrated for boys.
I also shot another set of brothers here in Atlanta (where I live) Javier and Jerry. When Javy was born he was in the NICU for months. Understandably, Jerry was in and around the hospital a lot. He saw a lot of other parents, just like his mom and dad, suffering and worried. He wanted to relieve some of that stress. So he started saving his allowance and paying for other parents’ food in the hospital cafeteria. He’d wait near the cash register and use his money to pay for their meals. He eventually started a charity to do just that and goes back on holidays to help in his way.”