How Hair Hanging Works

The Best-kept Secret of Hair Hanging

In addition to the pain of it all, you might wonder how hair can really support a human body.

A single strand of healthy human hair can hold 3.5 ounces (100 grams) of weight, the equivalent tensile strength of copper wire of the same diameter. So, theoretically (if not in practice) the hair on a typical human head could support 2 tons (1.8 metric tons) of weight [source: Lee].

A hair hanger might have 3 feet (1 meter) of hair. But it's not the length or even the conditioning that is the real secret to performing this feat.

The real trick is the braid. When the members of the Ayala family pass down their hair-hanging secrets to the next generation, it's all about securing the hair to the steel ring in such a way as to distribute the pulling force equally across the scalp.

If the tension on the scalp is uneven, chunks of hair can be literally ripped from the performer's head. Yikes!

The details of the braid – and the knot that secures it to the ring – are well-protected trade secrets. Each circus family has its own braiding technique that requires careful study and years of experience. Anastasia IV said she figured it out herself through painful trial and error.

Doing the braid requires time and a team effort. It takes her 30 minutes to brush out her hair in preparation for it to be braided. Then her husband and second helper carefully plait her hair like a rope, which takes another 45 minutes [source: Cawley]. The Ayalas have it down to a science, requiring only 20 to 40 minutes for the men of the family to braid and tie the women's hair to the thick support ring [source: Beck].

For lots more hair-raising feats of human endurance – and a few brilliant hoaxes – check out the related HowStuffWorks links on the next page.

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