My nine-year-old daughter is never more beautiful than when she’s dirty, sweaty and engaged in an activity. That’s when her true beauty shines through, yet I rarely capture a photo of it.
Atlanta-based photographer Kate T. Parker saw that same passion-driven beauty in her own daughters and put it online with her “Strong is the New Pretty” series. Parker was inspired as she looked through photos she’d snapped of daughters Ella, nine, and Alice, six, playing sports with their friends. She saw beauty that came from just being themselves—dirty, messy, scared, strong, engaged.
Parker’s stark black-and-white photos are startling in their clarity. These are raw glimpses of fearless, determined young women.
“Pretty” is a word I hear a lot. My daughter is very pretty. People comment on it and warn that I’m “going to be in trouble with that beauty.” Those aren’t words I want my daughter to hear and, to be honest, I never know how to respond. I just stammer a word of thanks and move on. The truth is, I don’t want you to tell me she’s pretty. Instead, tell me you admire her character, her spirit and quick wit. Tell me that she’s kind, a great leader who’s sometimes quite bossy. But don’t tell me I’m going to be “in trouble” one day because of how she looks—this isn’t the 1950s. Her looks do not define her.
At nine, she’s already very interested in her own reflection. She steals my lip gloss and thinks I don’t notice. She poses in front of the mirror and will soon live her life out on social media like most other teens. I know that vocabulary is important, so I try not to avoid telling her she’s pretty. I search for other words: strong, happy, excited.
It’s an interesting social experiment when you have a boy and a girl—it really lays bare the sexism that women grow up with. People are much more likely to comment on a girl’s looks but compliment boy based on his character or ability—like intelligence or aptitude for sports. Our girls are searching for role models and popular culture offers a mixed bag of Disney princesses, Barbies and boy-crazy Disney TV stars.
A few months ago, the “strong is the new skinny” meme was hot. But I think that just shifts the focus from one physical attribute to another. I feel similarly about Parker’s “strong is the new pretty.” If only there were a way to delete “pretty” from the equation. Perhaps I’m being naïve, but I wish that images that capture and emphasize girls’ energy and passion over their superficial beauty didn’t have to feel like such an exception. I wish that was more the norm. We still have a long way to go, but Parker’s photo series is a step in the right direction.