Additionally, he notes, fathers themselves send very mixed messages when they say one thing and do another. "If I say inner beauty is what's important, then pick up Playboy, I might as well save my breath," he says. "We set the male norm for our daughters."
Which, in a nutshell, is why Kelly, 46, is heading the nonprofit organization Dads and Daughters (DADS). The goal: to help men connect with their daughters and, in turn, teach fathers how to help girls develop a healthy self-image in a society where women are often objectified.
Equipped with a disarming manner and alarming statistics (citing recent research, he says 30 percent of 9-year-old girls have been on a diet and 90 percent of women are dissatisfied with their bodies), Kelly gives dozens of speeches each year, telling men around the country that they have a pivotal role in shaping their daughters' self-esteem. He also leads efforts to force companies to stop using advertising that denigrates women. "And who runs these outfits? Fathers!" says Kelly, who serves as DADS' executive director. So far, pressure from dads and others has resulted in the yanking of a Campbell's commercial suggesting soup as a diet food for young girls.
The campaign is effective because corporations "aren't expecting to hear from fathers," says Michael Kieschnick, a founder of Working Assets long-distance service, who came up with the idea for DADS in 1998. "There's an element of surprise. And that works. They listen." Psychologist Mary Pipher, who wrote the bestselling Reviving Ophelia, about the pressures faced by adolescent girls, and knows Kelly because of their shared interests, is impressed. "Joe has done a dynamite job and is really great at raising these issues," she says. "Fathers should do all they can to help young women deal with the enormous pressure to be beautiful and thin."
For the 1,900 men who have joined DADS, the nonprofit group provides advice and support through a newsletter, Web site (www.dadsanddaughters.org) and, of course, Kelly's talks. "It's a neglected subject," says Tom Miller, 33, the father of a 7-year-old girl, who took in Kelly's speech in Forest Lake. "I want to do right by her, so that's why I came. He makes a lot of sense."
Some of what Kelly believes comes from personal experience. He has twin daughters, Mavis and Nia, 20, with his wife of 20 years, Nancy Gruver, 47. "I was smitten as soon as they were born," he says. His own parents had instilled in him and his two siblings the importance of gender equality. So when the twins were little, it was Kelly who stayed home; he later worked the 4-a.m.-to-noon shift as a Minnesota Public Radio reporter so that he could work with Nancy in homeschooling them. "He's always been there for me," says Mavis, a sophomore at Antioch College in Ohio. (Nia is a student at Lake Superior College in Duluth, Minn.) "He was the only father who helped out with the Girl Scout troop."
In 1992, looking for a new challenge and a chance to work together, the Kellys came up with the idea of publishing a magazine written by and for young girls. New Moon: The Magazine for Girls and Their Dreams was born in their four-bed-room home in Duluth, where Nancy, the publisher, still puts it together for the 30,000 subscribers.
Two years ago Kieschnick, now 47, a subscriber, told Kelly how his 9-year-old daughter had asked him if she was fat. He then suggested that they unite with other dads to try to counteract society's messages to young girls. Kieschnick provided the seed money and DADS was born. "Some people tell me the problem is too big, that we can't possibly do much," Kelly says. "I say this is our culture. We have a responsibility to change it."
Julie K.L Dam
Margaret Nelson in Duluth
- Margaret Nelson.
"One of the worst experiences as a father," Joe Kelly tells the 11 men gathered at a Forest Lake, Minn., high school to hear him speak, "is walking in a mall with your daughter and seeing a man check her out like a piece of meat."