Inside the Festival Celebrating Black Women's Natural Hair

Curlfest 2019
Photo: Joslyn Blair Photography

I was in fifth grade when my mother gave me my first chemical hair relaxer. Every Sunday she'd turn our kitchen into a DIY beauty salon and run a stove-heated hot comb through my hair. This would take hours, and my thick coils would regularly snap "unbreakable" combs in two, so I can't even blame her for turning to chemicals that promised manageability.

But that was when I started thinking of my thick curls as something that needed to be managed — which I did until 2006 at age 21 when I decided, like a growing number of Black women, to grow out my relaxer and embrace my natural curls.

Solange Knowles' iconic big chop, Beyoncé singing about her daughter's afro hair, and natural hair products lining the shelves at my local Target were all still years away. I would have given anything for a community of Black women to help me nourish my thirsty roots and feel less alone in my natural hair journey.

Four years later, a group of newly-natural girlfriends started the Curly Girl Collective, a mission-driven meetup to help women with natural hair feel beautiful and celebrated. Their annual gathering, CurlFest, takes place in New York City and brings thousands of naturals from all over the world to connect, grow, and most importantly, feel seen.

Black women are more likely than their white counterparts to express themselves through their hair, according to anInStyle survey of American women in 2018, and that spirit of bold self-expression was on display at CurlFest 2019, on Sunday, July 27th at Randall's Island. But the importance for many Black women wearing their natural hair goes beyond expression to something weightier, and that was in the air on Sunday, too.

Again and again, our hair is policed and regulated. Earlier this year, Andrew Johnson, a Black student wrestler in New Jersey, was told by a white referee that he'd have to cut off his dreadlocks mid match or forfeit. Rather than force his mostly-white team to take the loss, he obliged. A white woman hacked off his dreadlocks with scissors as Johnson stood courtside with tears in his eyes. White teachers, parents, and coaches looked on without protesting on his behalf. Maya and Deanna Cook, two Black students in Massachusetts faced two weeks detention, were banned from their prom, and kicked off their sports teams because they wore their hair in braids.

Change has been slow, and is long overdue. Just in 2018, the Navy loosened regulations that once kept Black women from wearing dreadlocks, buns, and braids (which is extra-ridiculous considering those styles tend to be low-maintenance). In June of 2019, California became the first state to formally ban hair discrimination against Black students and employees with the CROWN Act. The law is the first to extend the definition of bias against one's racial identity to include hair. New York soon followed suit.

Curly Girl Collective co-founder Gia Lowe told InStyle she feels a long overdue paradigm shift brewing. Wearing a crown of tight cornrows, she said, "It feels like we're a part of elevating a generation that grew up feeling invisible, ignored, and told that how we desired to show up in the world was not enough, was not beautiful, was not professional, was not acceptable. It feels like the culture is listening and we can see the results of that."

It wasn't always like this. Lowe remembers working in finance spaces with her natural hair. A white colleague once introduced her to a client saying, "This is Gia and she's doing something crazy with her hair."

"It didn't matter that I had prepared an airtight presentation and that I knew the material forwards and backwards. He still felt it necessary to explain my look to a client in order to justify something," she explained. She saw the experience as a "teachable moment" and a chance to usher in a cultural change in her workplace, but remembers it feeling lonely and exhausting as well. CurlFest was in part borne out of those feelings, to give other women a place to feel nourished and validated, and to "keep showing up for ourselves."

Lowe sees the new legislation in California and New York as a necessary step that furthers her work. "When you have laws like the CROWN Act that are here to protect us from feeling like we have to question whether we can show up to an interview with our afro out, feeling like we have to question if we can apply to the US military if we have dreadlocks or a twist out, feeling like we might not be able to compete in an athletic competition, like Andrew Johnson, because we might be asked to cut off our hair. We know this kind of legislation puts a light on the fact that it's not okay, and that we can't continue to allow how we present ourselves in the world to be a place of fear or discrimination."

From the main stage at CurlFest, speakers shouted out the CROWN Act and urged for it to become law nationwide, to jubilant choirs of "YAS!" from the audience, a sea of Black women feeling beautiful and affirmed.

And someplace deep down, fifth grade me was feeling it, too.

Click through to some of the best looks on display at CurlFest 2019, and see what attendees had to say about embracing their natural hair.

01 of 19

Simone | simone_inspires

Simone | simone_inspires
Joslyn Blair Photography

Curly Girl Collective co-founder Simone rocks a natural bun and coiled bangs.

02 of 19

Briana | @BrianaRegine

Briana | @BrianaRegine
Joslyn Blair Photography

Briana rocked a bold, platinum blonde shaved head with a heart shaved into it. She says she loves the freedom of being natural. "I feel my best when I am who I am. I dress how I want to dress and I do my hair the way I want to and that's that."

03 of 19

Veronika Collins | @versace.ve

Veronika Collins | @versace.ve
Joslyn Blair Photography

Veronika jokingly says "being natural means having a lot of arm strength." She adds that it means "confidence, and loving the skin that you're in."

04 of 19

Courtney Danielle | @CurlsAndCouture

Courtney Danielle | @CurlsAndCouture
Joslyn Blair Photography

Courtney is at CurlFest because she loves to support Black women. She loves wearing bold, bright colors in her hair. "The beauty of having natural hair is getting to be versatile." The natural style she's most excited about right now is boho faux locs.

05 of 19

Gia Lowe | @Gia.LO

Gia Lowe | @Gia.LO
Joslyn Blair Photography

Gia is one of the cofounders of Curly Girl Collective. After working in finance, she says she and her cofounders started CurlFest because it's something they wished they had in the world. She wants CurlFest to inspire Black women to keep showing up for ourselves.

06 of 19

Jaleesa Parris | @Swankgt

Jaleesa Parris | @Swankgt
Joslyn Blair Photography

This is makeup artist Jaleesa's first year being natural. "Having no hair, you have to have the confidence to actually wear your hair and not be your hair," she says. "Now it's just my face and my personality."

07 of 19

Naomi | @NaomiEbony

Naomi | @NaomiEbony
Joslyn Blair Photography

Naomi went natural 11 years ago, when perms were thinning her hair. She says her favorite part about being natural is being part of a community of other Black women. "CurlFest means celebrating all Black women in a space where we can be comfortable." She says her hair helps her be bold. "You gotta stand out. Who wants to fit in?"

08 of 19

Jahmai Harvey | @ Iron_Zion

Jahmai Harvey | @ Iron_Zion
Joslyn Blair Photography

Jahmai calls himself a "rebel genius" and says he loves being around beautiful Black people. He's been growing his red dreadlocks for nine years and says they're a nod to his Jamacian heritage.

09 of 19

Bre Scullark | @BreScullark

Bre Scullark | @BreScullark
Joslyn Blair Photography

Bre placed third on America's Next Top Model, Cycle 5 and she did it with natural hair. She says when she was first getting into modeling, natural hair wasn't popular but now she's excited it's catching on. She loves seeing butterflies and wildflowers in natural fros and twist outs. "It's gorgeous," she says. "I shaved my head but damnit, maybe I was wrong!" she laughs.

10 of 19

Scott Bernard | @Body_By_Burnhard

Scott Bernard | @Body_By_Burnhard
Joslyn Blair Photography

Growing up, Scott felt like wearing natural hair was ridiculed. "People wanted a certain style to conform to society." As he's developed more self-love, he's decided to wear his natural hair as a nod to his African roots.

11 of 19

Akim'bo

Akim’bo
Joslyn Blair Photography

Akim'bo calls the vibe of CulrFest "Blove," or Black Love. "To see our people enjoying our culture together is beautiful."

12 of 19

Kia Marie | @TheNotoriousKia

Kia Marie | @TheNotoriousKia
Joslyn Blair Photography

Kia describes herself as "unapologetic" and she came to CurlFest rocking a free 'fro. She's excited by seeing more Black women embrace their curls. Her advice for newly natural women is to take your time and to not be afraid to experiment.

13 of 19

Jazmine | @Jazzzy.Curls

Jazmine | @Jazzzy.Curls
Joslyn Blair Photography

Jazmine styled her own CurlFest look because she wanted something that would withstand the heat and still look funky. She loves that the natural hair community is all about doing it yourself and learning new styles from YouTube. She says she's never felt discriminated against because of her hair, but she's excited about the CROWN Act. She works in restaurants in New York and says it's great for everyone to get the chance to be who they are in the workplace.

14 of 19

Futuristic and Fearless

Futuristic and Fearless
Joslyn Blair Photography

Channeling Janelle Monáe in a strong pigtail look.

15 of 19

Lots of Locs

Lots of Locs
Joslyn Blair Photography

One of many natural styles, done up with delicate decorations, at CurlFest 2019.

16 of 19

Go Bold

Go Bold
Joslyn Blair Photography

With bright hair, geometric earrings, and a bold top, this CurlFest attendee definitely came to get noticed.

17 of 19

Tiffany M. Battle | @tiffanymbattle

Tiffany M. Battle | @tiffanymbattle
Joslyn Blair Photography

Tiffany chose beads on braids, but nothing beats that smile when it comes to accessorizing.

18 of 19

A Color Story

A Color Story
Joslyn Blair Photography

Shades of orange were definitely the color trend of the day, but this attendee brought it up a notch with her super-light curls.

19 of 19

An Adorned Look

An Adorned Look
Joslyn Blair Photography

A CurlFest attendee finds her light.

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