Growing up in a multicultural household, Christa Rice felt her thick, naturally curly hair was something undesirable, something to be hidden away.
“As a kid I had the thickest hair in all my family,” says Rice, a Kansas City artist and social worker. “My family is Black, Mexican and Native American. We all look different. Me and my sister both had these curls that nobody else has, and my family used to tell us we needed to perm it because it was too thick. As a kid hearing that, you begin to feel it is ugly.”
Rice is now working to try to make sure no other child feels that way. She recently hosted her sixth annual event outside the Liberty Memorial, a special day for Black women and girls to let their hair down: the KC Curly photo shoot.
She created the event to shine a spotlight on the beauty of Black hair, with over 100 women of color clad in purple and ready to experience the sisterhood of natural curls. Back when she started it in 2015, Rice was unprepared for just what an impact her idea would have.
Growing up with the implication that thicker hair meant unattractive, Rice, like many Black women, chose to conform. Keeping her hair relaxed and straight through chemical treatments, she began to see a change in the way she was treated. Each new experience reinforced the idea that natural Black hair was something negative and something to be avoided if a woman expected to be considered beautiful.
“When I got older, I felt I didn’t get any attention from men unless my hair was straightened. When I first considered going natural, my boyfriend at the time didn’t understand why I would want to go out like that,” says Rice.
Rice knew she couldn’t be the only one going through this. After coming across a photograph of a stairwell of beautiful Black women all standing proud with natural curls and Afros, Rice became inspired for what could be.
Rice decided to become that local resource for Black natural hair. She wanted to create a space where women can congregate with other women of color, share their journey and make connections with fellow natural hair enthusiasts. She’s been holding the KC Curly event on the third Saturday of September.
“I picked the Liberty Memorial because liberty means freedom, and this event is all about women being free,” says Rice. “The first year I expected maybe 40 women to come. We had like 100 women show up, and I wasn’t expecting all that.”
Rice would unknowingly create an event that would act as a sledgehammer swung at the stigmas of Black hair and breaking misconceptions of what defines beauty. Starting off as just a photo shoot offering free pictures, it has since grown into a multifaceted event adding a runway show, poetry reading and sponsored prizes.
A history of stigma
Rice knows that in a society of relaxers, wigs and weaves, Black women have many alternatives to wearing their hair natural. Hair has long been a topic of contention within the Black community, spanning back to the slave trade when Europeans, in an effort to strip Africans of their culture, went about systematically eliminating language, religion and, yes, even hairstyles. Heads once adorned with intricate designs, braids and locs were shaved or bound with a scarf.
It was made clear for centuries that the straighter a Black person’s hair, the more attractive they were. With the invention of Black hair products like perms and hot combs, Black women and even men would begin a regimen of unhealthy hair routines to achieve that perceived beauty.
“We have been brainwashed to think that anything but our hair is pretty. Madam C.J. Walker made these products to make our hair look more European. Now we know these products we have been putting in our hair has chemicals that causes damage,” says Rice.
The “Go Natural” trend started in the 1970s with the Black Is Beautiful movement. Large Afros became the look until the ’80s with the rise of chemical texturizers, known more commonly as Jheri Curls.
Rice’s annual event has long stood as a definitive resource for camaraderie for those just starting their journey of natural hair and also those who have been on it for years. Women from every age group gather, greet and enjoy the solidarity of their sisterhood.
One aspect that Rice has been surprised by is the number of white mothers with biracial daughters who have ethnically thick hair. In many of these families, these children can be outsiders who grow up seeing their hair as something negative.
“There were a lot of white women who brought their daughters,” says Rice. “I think it is cool because they have kids that society don’t classify as white even if they are from a white family.
“Some mothers have told me that their daughter feels different coming from a white family, and (they love) being able to see their daughters in a place where they feel beautiful with their natural hair.”
‘Something really special’
Photographer Jill Washington, a white mother of a biracial daughter, went to college with Rice and has volunteered since the beginning of KC Curly.
“God created all of us to look different and be different,” says Washington. “We all have different talents, and I think sometimes our society wants everyone to fit into a specific mold and that is just not how it is. Anytime we can get together to teach women to love themselves and how they were created, you can never go wrong.”
Washington, 38, was among several white mothers who were at the shoot with close to 200 Black women, a situation many would shy away from, being outside their comfort zone. Many mothers took the time to reflect on how this may be how their children feel.
“I have a daughter who is mixed and has curly hair. We live in Johnson County, and there is not a lot of representation in the area where she can see beautiful women who loved their hair and not hide it,” Washington says.
Washington’s 12-year-old daughter Tristyn was born with a medical condition which caused her intestines to be on the outside of her body. She would spend the first several years of her life in hospital care. For Washington, having her daughter experience the festivities is one of the best parts about volunteering each year. Her daughter has been to all but one KC Curly from the start and has gained a type of community that Washington had not thought possible.
“She loves going and getting to see all the kids. Now that we have done it for so many years it is kind of like a big family. We have seen all the kids as they have grown and seeing young college women get married,” she says.
Washington, one of several photographers Rice enlisted for the event, has seen the numbers and excitement grow with each year. Washington is excited to see what the future holds for Rice.
“I have never come across an event like this. I think it is something really special she has created and I think it has a lot of potential to touch a lot more lives. I am excited to see it grow,” says Washington.
Over the past few years, more people in the Black community have embraced their natural hair, and similar events and gatherings have cropped up in the metro. Rice doesn’t feel impeded on at all. She knows that with more such events, the message can only reach more people.
“I hope that the people who are throwing these hair shoots that are similar to mine can reach out. I would love to see some sort of collaboration,” says Rice. “But every year it is getting bigger and better. I learn something every year, and seeing these little girls wear their natural hair for the first time and being so proud warms my heart. It feels like Christmas.”