Kate T. Parker’s “Strong Is the New Pretty” Mesmerizes and Inspires

Helen Cudahy Niblack ’42 Arts Lecture Series

Photographer and author Kate T. Parker came to Foxcroft this week for a whirlwind visit that included a presentation to the entire Foxcroft community, a book signing, a master class for all the photography students from level I through Advanced, and lunch with yearbook staff and others. Her bestselling book, Strong Is the New Pretty, features girls and young women ranging in age from 5 to 18 who are fierce, gutsy, adventurous, loud, athletic, creative, and artsy. She captures them laughing, screaming, studying, deep in thought, working hard, and having fun. The subtitle really says it all, “A Celebration of Girls Being Themselves.” Her message fits well with this year’s theme of “Inside Out,” which has invited students to examine their inner landscapes and become more knowledgeable about themselves — their emotions, fears, strengths, abilities, and challenges — so that they can be comfortable in their own skin and present their authentic selves to the world with courage and confidence.
As Kate shared her photos and story, it became clear that the simple and powerful images align perfectly with the simple and powerful message that real beauty shines through when you are being true to yourself. She implored her audience to embrace those things about themselves that are “too much, or they're embarrassing. Those are the most powerful and wonderful things about you. Those are your superpowers. Please do not lose them. Please do not soften them. Do not change them to make somebody else happy. What are your superpowers? What makes you great? Because those things are gifts. And too often, especially as girls and women, we lose those gifts.”

The images in Strong Is the New Pretty were Kate’s way of taking on the subtle and not-so-subtle messages that girls — particularly her girls — were getting from print, broadcast, and social media to not be their authentic selves. As a mom, she says, “I didn't want them to change their clothes. I didn't want them to smile for me, or brush their hair or clean up. I wanted to show that strength and power of these girls that I saw every day. Because when my girls and I would watch TV or read magazines or go on the internet, we didn't see that. We didn't see this kind of representation of girls and we didn't see that proud confidence that comes with an undefeated soccer season. My girls and I did not see a lot of ourselves in the women and girls that were reflected back to us in the media.”

Before it was a bestselling book and phenomenon, though, it was just the germ of an idea and an invitation to be part of a gallery show. Kate invested in this great opportunity for her fledgling photography career. She prepared her images, printed, framed, and hung the photos for the show. And, she confessed, “I sold zero images at the show. It was a total and complete bust … and I felt like a failure.”

Completely defeated, at least temporarily, Kate returned home prepared to just give up. But after a few days, she says, “I got mad. There's something more here. There's something more interesting than trying to sell something at a gallery. There's a message here that I wanted to share. So I sent these images and a couple words on what the project was about — girls being strong and being confident — to three or four blogs that I follow, and the images and the message went viral. They were seen and shared millions of times on CNN, The Today Show, and a ton of other places.”

At that point, the sensation of Strong Is the New Pretty took over: interviews, social media, the book, projects with Disney and Athleta and Kellogg’s and Oxygen, the guided journal, a book about boys, The Heart of a Boy, and a TV show in the works. It was overwhelming and scary, especially in the beginning, as Kate says, “because it was mostly my kids, and anything that goes on the internet gets skewed in a really negative way all the time, but the core message was a positive one. And I'm so glad that I wasn't the only one who thought girls needed to hear it.”

Kate urged the students to follow their passion. “It's such an important message for us, especially as women, that if your gut is telling you something, listen to it. You can ignore the noise. Keep pushing for the things that you believe in and keep pushing for the things you're passionate about because if you are passionate about it, I guarantee you somebody else is as well!”

After her presentation, Kate held a master class for the Photography I, Photography II, and Advanced Photography students who are all working on an “Inside Out” themed photography project. Kate provided feedback on each of their individual ideas and answered questions ranging from technical to philosophical to career advice. During lunch with yearbook staff and others who couldn’t attend the master class, the questions and discussion continued until Kate had to leave for the airport and head back to Atlanta and get her next book, Play Like a Girl, due out in May, to print.

The Helen Cudahy Niblack ’42 Arts Lecture Series was established by Austi Brown ’73 in memory of her mother. Since it began in 2007, the series has brought a variety of literary, performing, and fine artists to Foxcroft to share their work, stories, and perspective on the nature of the creative process with both students and the larger community. One of the goals of the Niblack series is to provide an artist with the opportunity to share his artistic journey in a comfortable and familiar setting, creating space for an exchange of ideas that just might inspire a Foxcroft girl or two to chase her own artistic dreams.
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An all-girls boarding and day school in Northern Virginia, Foxcroft prepares young women in grades 9-12 for success in college and in life. Our outstanding academic program offers challenging courses, including Advanced Placement classes and an innovative STEM program. Our premiere equestrian program is nationally recognized, and our athletic teams have won conference and state championships. Experience the best in girls' boarding schools: visit Foxcroft.