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Tracee Ellis Ross on How Her Personal Experience Influenced mixed-ish's Hair Episode

Bow is on a journey of self-discovery

Megan Vick

Have you ever seen a make-over episode of America's Next Top Model? They're the best of any given season because there is always at least one person who cries over getting their hair cut. That deeply emotional response taps directly into how important hair is to people, and especially women, in an image-obsessed society. "Good hair" has a different connotation depending on your cultural perspective, and figuring out the complicated politics of that phrase can be a minefield -- especially when you're not 100 percent sure what your cultural perspective is in the first place.

Enter the third episode of mixed-ish, "Let Your Hair Down," which sees 12-year-old Bow (Arica Himmel) struggling with owning her natural curls or relaxing them to make it easier to fit in. It's yet another facet of her life that feels like it is forcing her to choose between her black and white heritage, and it's a struggle that mixed-ish executive producer Tracee Ellis Ross connects to on a very personal level.

"I always say I could chronicle my journey of self-acceptance through my journey with my hair," Ross told TV Guide over the phone. "There is a breadth of story, a narrative, in black women and our hair -- and that specific part of that community that is mixed women and what that means as you navigate two different cultures, both in your household and out in the world. I knew that when mixed-ish got picked up and we knew what was happening, I was really strong about the fact that we needed to do [a hair episode] and do it early on in the season. It's one of those stories that is so specifically of the mixed experience."

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While Bow is at the beginning of her hair journey of self-discovery, Ross has been on hers for 40 years. After a decade of attempts, the actress has also launched a line of hair products called Pattern, which is specifically geared toward helping women embrace their hair, whatever style it comes in. However, Ross doesn't try to hide the fact that journey took time. One of the key things when translating her experience to Bow was to highlight the time period and the complicated political factors that contribute to Bow's crisis in the episode.

"One of the things that was really important to me was the historical context of what was actually happening in the '80s and what we were up against. Because it's so very different from where we are now in terms of the images that we see and the black girl magic and natural hair revolution that has occurred," Ross said. "We went from the Angela Davis' afro being a sign of revolution, to what was actually happening in the '80s before where we're at now, so that people kind of understand the context, because it's so important in terms of hair, what we as individuals were seeing around us... what was considered beautiful, appropriate, and all those kinds of things."

Arica Himmel and Mykal-Michelle Harris, mixed-ish​

Arica Himmel and Mykal-Michelle Harris, mixed-ish

Richard Cartwright, ABC

Bow is not the only one who struggles with where she feels most comfortable on the hair spectrum. Her younger brother, Johan (Ethan Childress), goes through a transformation of his own as he finds out that his hair isn't tight enough to have the same haircut as his favorite rappers, but it's too textured to have any of the popular white kid styles of the time either.

"There's a way that we don't allow men and boys the experience of what they're navigating as well with their feelings and wanting to fit in. It's as if that old idea that we are in this day and age really attempting to pull apart and take away, that like 'boys don't cry' and like boys don't have feelings. That's absolutely not true," Ross explained. "The experience of being mixed affects all of us differently, but it's not that boys are impervious to it. Johan, with his lovely luscious head of hair, is also having his own experience that he has to navigate."

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Bow's sister, Santamonica (Mykal-Michelle Harris), has less trouble in the episode when it comes to deciding on a hairstyle. She adores having her hair relaxed and has no shortage of self-confidence, but when her mother implies that relaxed hair is denying the girls their natural roots, the young girl becomes very concerned that her relaxed hair makes her a bad black person. It's the flip side of Bow's inner dialogue but equally important to address.

Each episode of mixed-ish so far has ended with Bow and her siblings getting one step closer to self-acceptance. Ross admits that hair was too big a topic to completely untangle in one episode, and it will be revisited at other points in Bow's journey, but she wanted the message of embracing all hair types to be evident from the beginning.

"There's nothing wrong with you making the choice of deciding that you want to relax your hair, wear weaves, or wigs, or braids, or wear your hair in its natural [state]," Ross added. "Whatever that is is all open to you. This is really about taking ownership of your own beauty and your own physical form. I think that [Santamonica] moment was key. It's part of the reason I think mixed-ish is such an interesting show, because we get to name things from the point of view of the '80s that are still so relevant and important [to] the conversation now."

mixed-ish airs Tuesdays at 9/8c on ABC.