On Television, Big, Natural Hair Is Stealing the Show

‘Black-ish’ actor Tracee Ellis Ross dishes about her trademark mane.
Tracee Ellis Ross. (Photo: Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)
Jan 25, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

From Viola Davis as a law professor in How to Get Away With Murder to Uzo Aduba and Danielle Brooks as inmates on Orange Is the New Black, this year’s slate of strong, multifaceted female roles is changing the way we see women on television.

Besides their larger-than-life personalities, these characters are garnering acclaim for another, more visible feature: naturally textured hair. It’s the reason Black-ish actor Tracee Ellis Ross called television “one of the places where women are pushing up against” culture’s “limited view of what beauty is and can be” in an op-ed in Entertainment Weekly last month.

That this rebellion against traditional beauty standards is happening on-screen is especially significant considering research showing that female characters on TV are still skinnier, dressed in fewer clothes, and cast in fewer speaking roles than their male counterparts.

The daughter of Afro-wearing singer Diana Ross, Ellis Ross knows a thing or two about defying traditional standards of beauty. She plays an anethesiologist and mother of four on the sitcom Black-ish, where she’s become just as renowned for her natural curls as for her portrayal of the liberal-minded, biracial matriarch.

In a Jan. 22 interview with The New York Times magazine, the actor had so much to say about her “curly cloud of hair” that reporter Jenna Wortham wrote a separate piece devoted to their dialogue about her trademark mane.

In it, Ellis Ross praises social media for its ability to connect people (and their natural hairstyles), gushes about the big-haired singer Solange, and talks about the inclusive impact hair can have on TV audiences.

“To be able to see other women that have their hair like me, it gives me a sense of belonging, and I love that that is a part of television now,” she said.

Black-ish, which attracted an impressive 11 million viewers when it premiered on ABC in September, has been celebrated for its portrayal of black characters who deal directly with issues of race—a rarity for mainstream television.

That same month, The New York Times’ Alessandra Stanley drew criticism for her characterization of Davis as “less classically beautiful” than lighter-skinned TV actors such as Scandal’s Kerry Washington. Both characters appear on-screen in various scenes sans weave or wig.

“Women are asked to put forward, to a certain extent, a mask. And for black women, that has taken on greater significance, because the standard of beauty has not necessarily had the space for different definitions of beauty,” said Ellis Ross. “I’m trying to find my own definition of what makes me feel beautiful.”

For the 42-year-old actor and former lead in the show Girlfriends, that’s not necessarily limited to just natural, curly hair. “If wearing a weave is what makes you feel beautiful, if wearing a wig, if wearing your hair pink, blue, that’s what matters, in my opinion,” she said. “Maybe I want to start wearing wigs tomorrow. I don’t know.”

If and when Ellis Ross does don a wig, it’s sure to be documented on her Instagram, where she reguarly treats her 767,000 followers to images of her wavy curls, paired with hashstags such as #tightandspringy, #bouncyandwavy, or simply #curlsoncurlsoncurls.