The Conversation with photographer and activist Kate T. Parker

From "Strong is the New Pretty" by Kate T. Parker / Workman

In 2014, Kate T. Parker, mother, professional photographer and former college soccer player, started taking candid photos of her daughters in what she calls their "tomboy" state. The result became a viral sensation and now a book, "Strong is the New Pretty," celebrating what she sees as the best part of young girls: their untempered fearlessness. Parker's images capture girls in moments of defiance, ferocity and ambivalence, with their looks refreshingly irrelevant. Parker, 40, sat down to talk about the lasting value of sports for girls, her own persistent competitiveness and why she loves telling people about her mistakes.

Allison Glock: How did your project, "Strong is the New Pretty," start?

Kate T. Parker: Really small. I'm a photographer, and I was shooting my two girls -- Ella, 11, and Alice, 8 -- and I noticed that the best pictures were the shots where they were really themselves, meaning dirty hair not brushed, shoes off, clothes not matching, running around crazy, making mud in the backyard.

AG: So being natural, not trying to be what girls traditionally are told they should be.

KP: Yes! I didn't ask them to smile or to ingratiate themselves to the camera in any way. I captured this fierceness and spirit. The usual stuff we all see shopping or looking at magazines is perfect girls with perfect hair with a perfect outfit on that's a certain size. I wanted my girls to know that their dirty, messy, emotional selves were already perfect and beautiful. I wanted them to know that their true selves were worthy of being photographed. I didn't want them to feel like they needed to change that to be loved.

AG: Are your kids on Instagram?

KP: Yeah.

AG: What are your feelings about that?

KP: As a photographer, I love it. But I also know that Instagram is one of the things that makes girls feel bad because everything is perfect, filtered, Photoshopped.

AG: And sexy.

KP: Yes, and sexy. That's really all you ever see on social media: the perfect, the happy. We forget what's real. So honestly, "Strong is the New Pretty" was a response to all of that bulls---. I wanted to show a little more truth.

AG: Do your children understand what you're doing with the project, how it differs from what girls often encounter on social media?

KP: I talk to them about it. I'll say, "Guys, that's not real. That was set up. Nobody looks like that in real life. That's a filter. That's lighting. Her life isn't perfect. Nobody's happy all the time." Without experience, you have no way of knowing.

AG: Even adults have a hard time remembering that.

KP: [Laughs] Yeah. If you look at your Facebook feed, it's all highlights. Like, anything you post is sort of like an inadvertent humble brag.

AG: It's advertising.

KP: Yes. It's advertising for a perfect life that nobody has. I want to provide a little oasis of honesty in all of the inauthentic stuff that we see every day.

AG: When you shoot the girls who are your subjects, are they open to it? Do they naturally get hammy?

KP: I always tell them, "You don't have to look at the camera. You're fine." But they're so used to being photographed or photographing themselves.

AG: They all have a "camera face" already.

KP: Yes. At 8 years old, they're already trying to be cute. I want girls to know they're cuter when they're ignoring the camera, just being themselves.

AG: After you compiled a bunch of these images, you participated in a gallery show, and from there, you realized you had something bigger to say.

KP: Yes. But nothing sold at the show -- not one photo. So I put together 20 images and sent them to a blog, saying, "I'm a mom taking pictures of her kids in their natural state." I was anxious. I remember thinking, "What's the point of this?"

AG: Then the images went viral. A book deal followed. The "Strong is the New Pretty" photo book is in its third printing already. You have since been a guest on many talk shows and have gone on a national school tour to talk to girls about confidence.

KP: It's been a dream come true. It was so organic. It was not my intention from the start, but it kind of steamrolled. It became a great opportunity to show the strength in all kinds of girls. And now I have a philanthropic arm of "Strong is the New Pretty," with the goal of raising girls' confidence through athletics. For example, at Wake Forest, we gave money specifically for women's soccer. Growing up, athletics were so big for me.

AG: In what way?

KP: I did gymnastics, swam, played basketball, softball. I ran track. I started playing soccer because my two older brothers did. My parents never said, "Girls don't play soccer. Girls don't get their hair cut like their brothers," which I totally did -- in a bowl cut. I never cared what I looked like. I didn't care what I weighed. I wasn't that concerned with whether the boys liked me or not. I had another outlet that was more important to me. I just cared about how I did on the field.

AG: It's hard to overstate the psychological value of that type of outlet for girls.

KP: Athletics gave me this amazing place for me to be myself, which was intense and fierce and loud. On the field, those traits were encouraged.

AG: You ended up playing soccer at Wake on a scholarship. What was your position?

KP: I played forward. Then I slid into defense because I was less skilled than determined. I didn't let up -- which has served me in my life. Now I coach my daughter's soccer team. Ella plays three or four times a week. She's a goalie. She also plays flag football. It's an all-girls team, and they play against all boys. They won their first game this year, which was awesome.

AG: Do you still play sports?

KP: I run. I used to run races, but I would get too down on myself because my times weren't what they were when I was 25. Now I just run for fun.

AG: That's a big transition to make if you've been a competitive athlete most of your life.

KP: Oh, I still compete.

AG: Like if there's someone on a treadmill next to you?

KP: [Laughs] Yeah. It drives me. If you're competitive, you're always competitive.

AG: What female athletes were meaningful to you as a young woman? Who inspired you?

KP: Mia Hamm. Julie Foudy. The entire women's national team. My freshman year at Wake, we played Carolina, and basically, Carolina was the national team. Our coach was like, "Do your best. Just don't ask for autographs." They were celebrities to us. And same for my girls. My daughter loves Hope Solo. Our dog is named Tobin Heath.

AG: Is that flattering?

KP: [Laughs] From my kids' perspective, yes.

AG: Was there any pushback to the series at all?

KP: I've gotten nasty emails from people that say, "F--- you, b----," saying I was trying to make the girls into lesbians or something.

AG: By taking their picture?

KP: Yes.

AG: Wow. I didn't know that was possible.

KP: [Laughs] It was not this grand scheme. But yeah, people criticize all the time. As far as the subject matter, artists shoot things that move them. For me, that began with my daughters. Also, I shoot commercially, and some of it was, let me practice with my lenses. Like sport, [if] you practice something every day, you're going to get better at it.

AG: I find that artists who are women often get put into the domestic box. Especially when the work involves family or other women, the result is seen more like a hobby. The achievements are minimized and marginalized.

KP: Which is the case most of the time with women in all fields, right? I was just reading about that Jameis Winston school visit. Jeez.

AG: The one in February, in which he divided a group of fifth-graders into girls and boys and told the girls to "sit down" and that they should be "silent, polite, gentle" but told the boys they're "supposed to be strong"?

KP: I was just like, really? Still?

AG: It seems to be a timely climate for your book.

KP: I was actually hoping we'd have a woman in office when it came out. I was really upset by the election. Then I got more resolute. Now there's more reason to fight and more reason to try to spread this message.

AG: To encourage girls to explore their strength and value in a different way -- not wait for somebody else to assign it to them.

KP: Exactly. When I was a kid, there was no girls' team. My mom found me a team with all boys. The boys were mean to me. They told me I couldn't play. I cried a lot. Then we moved, and I found a girls' team, and that changed my life because your teammates are like your sisters. You go through so much -- you lose, you travel, you're hurt, you have each other's backs. If you're on a team with someone, you see them at their worst, and you see them at their best. And if somebody sees you that way and still likes you ...

AG: That's about as powerful a message a girl can receive. When do you feel you're your strongest?

KP: After I accomplish something I was afraid to do. Being brave isn't not being afraid. It's being scared but moving ahead anyway. Making a speech in front of a large audience or being in charge of a commercial shoot that has 100 people? I'm dry heaving. But getting to the other side? I feel like a badass.

AG: Looking back, what would you say was the most important thing athletics taught you about yourself, beyond the determination that you mentioned?

KP: Oh, there is one lesson I still revisit to this day. Until my senior year in college, I had played in every single game. Then we got a new coach. And my first game with him, I didn't get in. He didn't play me. I'd played soccer my whole life. I'd never not been a starter, a contributor. And for my whole senior season, I didn't start. So I pouted, got angry, sat on the bench like this: [crosses her arms, juts her lips, laughs]. I literally have nightmares about it still. You know your one dream where you're in school naked? Mine is I'm on the bench, and I'm angry, and I'm not doing anything about it. It's my hugest regret in life.

AG: How so?

KP: Because I got mad and behaved like a child when I should have asked what I could do better, or how do I work on this? It's something I try to impart to my girls now. You're not going to get something fixed by feeling sorry for yourself. Being benched taught me to understand my role, and my role at that point should have been to cheer on my team and not be a crab on the bench. It's such a huge life lesson to learn that you won't always get the thing you think you deserve.

AG: What do you most want people to take away from your photographs?

KP: To know that beauty is not a hairstyle or a size or an outfit. To know that your weirdness is sometimes the best part of you. I want girls to pursue their passions and not be embarrassed by them.

AG: You've been touring schools. What questions do girls ask after seeing your book?

KP: The other day, one girl said, "I don't have anything about myself I feel confident about. What do I do?" I almost cried. I said to her, "Well, what do you like to do? What is your favorite thing to do? Just keep focusing on that." Another girl raised her hand and said, "I have a voice inside me that I try to ignore. But now I'm going to listen to it more."

AG: That has to feel profound. Was that deep impact a surprise to you?

KP: It's been life-changing. A lot of girls ask me to tell them about when I failed. I'm happy to! I'll take the whole hour and talk about my failures. I always tell them about the gallery show, how none of the photographs sold. I try to show the girls a "no" isn't a "no" forever.

AG: What do you want your daughters to learn from you most?

KP: If you have something you believe in, you can make a difference. But nothing's going to happen if you don't work your ass off.

AG: Do you have a favorite image in the book?

KP: I do, yes. It chokes me up every time. It shows an 18-year-old girl named Lesley with the American flag, and she says, "Many girls grew up dreaming of a hero to save them. I grew up dreaming of becoming one."