Strong is the New Pretty

“We weren’t supposed to climb this high, but the view is better up here.”

I’ve tried hard not to be an out-of-touch adult when it comes to technology and social media. It doesn’t always work. There was the time in 2011 when I gave a shout out to the millennial employees at our agency for being so focused on their work, that they felt they needed to wear headphones to block out all noise distraction. When they responded with a perplexed, “Um, you know that we’re using those to listen to music and stuff while we work, right?” I played it cool. Although honestly, no, I really didn’t know that.

Just recently, I was reprimanded by my son for texting him every time it was his turn on Words with Friends. “Mom, you know that it automatically alerts me when it’s my turn, right?” Yeah, I told him. I knew that.

There is, however, one aspect of social media that does not inspire me to shift my views, play it cool, or support certain trends: I simply refuse to believe that it is emotionally, psychologically, or physically healthy for young girls to be exposed to the endless supply of unrealistic images of beauty via these platforms. Filters, Photoshop, and the dozens of apps that allow beauty to be portrayed within the narrow boundaries of perfection are destroying self-confidence and self-worth for girls at the developmental stage when they are most vulnerable.

Thankfully, there is a rising tide of trends that are rejecting the traditionally imposed definitions of beauty. While there is a long, long (did I say long?) way to go, the signs of hope are breaking through the surface like the beautiful, raw green shoots that emerge from muddy patches of dirt in spring.

Photographs portraying dressed-alike girls in the “skinny-arm” pose are being replaced with those that capture authentic, unscripted moments. Role models like Serena Williams, Ronda Rousey, and Abby Wambach are showing girls that blood, sweat, and tears are badges of honor, and can even go hand-in-hand with expressing sexuality.

Riding this wave, and creating tidal waves in her wake, is photographer Kate Parker. Her newly-published photography book, Strong is the New Pretty, captures images of young girls, teens, and emerging adults in ways that will challenge your perception — and definition — of beauty.

The book also includes quotes from the girls Kate captures with her lens. Among my favorite is one from 12-year-old Catherine, captured in black and white while fencing. She says, “Being mentally strong is ten times harder than being physically strong. Mental stamina does not come from the muscles or from training. It comes from the heart…and from the mind. Calling on my heart is far more difficult than calling on my muscles.” Yeah. That’s right. She’s 12. If that doesn’t give you hope for the future, well, then I don’t know what will.

As Kate was finishing up her book, Rachel Bellow and I asked Kate to join us on our podcast, The Big Payoff. We had many questions for her, like whether “mean girls” can be beautiful, and if she feels that we are, in fact, headed in the direction of celebrating beauty from the inside out. Kate’s answers led to a great conversation that delivered plenty of insights that kicked us back on our (high) heels.

She told us that what she sees from behind the lens is that passion drives beauty. “If you are doing something that you love, your outward beauty will appear,” she says. She also shared that the strength she saw from the girls often came from adversity, whether that was as dramatic as a 10-year old cancer patient who lost her leg, or as everyday as a soccer player who felt she didn’t get enough playing time. It is what emerges out of those experiences that Kate was able to capture in images that are striking in their raw, blessedly unairbrushed style.

In the wake of International Women’s Day, it seems appropriate to sign off with one more quote from the book. It appears next to a photo of two girls in sportswear and bare feet, sitting high up in a large tree. Emme, age 7, says, “We weren’t supposed to climb this high, but the view is better up here.”

Keep climbing girls. Keep climbing.

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