From bad hair days to genetic hair predispositions, the documentary Hairy Tales sheds light on the struggles we all face in our quest for perfect hair. Anthony Morgan faces a family history of baldness and Sarita Cullis-Suzuki grapples with postpartum hair loss. The co-hosts, from The Nature of Things, share their personal experiences, while untangling the science behind common hair dilemmas that resonate with all of us.

“I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have hair issues, Dr. Renée Beach , Toronto based dermatologist, notes. She also delves into the social and scientific implications of our hair. With insights from doctors, geneticists, leading researchers, from the salon to the lab to the circus, the documentary explores every hair-raising issue we all face in the mirror daily.

Notable experts include Tina Lasisi, a biological anthropologist, who takes Anthony into the desert to uncover the evolutionary significance of human scalp hair. Marc Meyers, a materials scientist, challenges Anthony to a “thin hair vs. thick hair” duel, highlighting the remarkable strength of human hair. And meet the circus performer — the Guinness World Record holder for the world’s strongest hair — who hangs her entire body weight from her ponytail!

The documentary also speaks with a  stem cell scientist attempting to develop a “botox for baldness” and a Canadian researcher who pulls his hair out determining whether stress can actually make us go gray.

Hairy Tales - CBC Gem
We had the opportunity to chat with director, writer, and producer Leora Risen to learn more…

The topic of hair and our concerns span across all ethnicities, genders and ages. What surprised you while researching this documentary?

Leora: One of the reasons I wanted to make the documentary was because so much of people’s self-esteem is tied up In their hair. In one US survey, respondents said they experience a “bad hair day” more than a week out of every month. As one dermatologist says in the film, “I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have hair issues.”

What surprised me was the level of obsession – people are completely obsessed! It’s not just women, either. Men also have serious concerns about hair loss, hair health and their appearance. In fact, Anthony Morgan, one of the hosts of The Nature of Things, really wanted to find out about his receding hairline. His co-host, Sarika Cullis-Suzuki, was really curious about why she lost so much hair after she gave birth to twins.

Yet science often ignores those concerns because hair is considered a “cosmetic” thing. So I wanted to address some of those concerns and meet the researchers and health professionals who are trying to do something about it.

What hair myth was busted when it comes to hair and what we know, or think we know?

Leora: One myth – thick hair is stronger than thin hair. Not true! It turns out, according to a scientist who has actually tested it, thinner hair is actually stronger. In fact, your child’s hair might be stronger than yours! That’s because thicker hair tends to have more internal flaws. But generally human hair is surprisingly strong; on a weight basis, it’s as strong as steel.

Another myth – that male pattern baldness is inherited only from the Grandpa on the mother’s side. It isn’t quite that simple. Genetics is a complex science, and while the androgen receptor gene from the mother’s side often dominates, the father’s side can also be involved.

I also wondered whether stress really causes hair to turn grey. You’ll have to tune in to find out the answer to that one!

Social media trends have also influenced how we look at hair. What did you learn about this connection?

Leora: I think social media has made us even more anxious about our hair. Every time a celebrity or “hairfluencer” offers hair tips while showing off their lustrous locks, we wonder if we should be following their advice. But are they being paid to say it? Did they have their hair professionally styled? Is there any scientific research to support whatever do-it-yourself hack or product they’re promoting? Before we try the latest trend – from hanging upside down to pouring onion juice on our heads – we need to ask ourselves those questions.

What do you hope viewers will take away from this documentary?

Leora: I’m hoping viewers gain an appreciation for just how incredible hair actually is! it is a remarkable and complicated part of human biology. Hair is unique because it regenerates itself! When the strands you see on top of your head (which are actually dead – who knew?) fall out, new ones start developing in your follicles to take their place. It’s a fascinating process.

I also hope viewers learn that DNA isn’t always destiny. While genetics play a large part in determining your hair – or lack of it – there are lots of other factors at play. Your immune system, diet, hormones, stress, medications, even climate change can impact hair health.

I am seeing more greys in the mirror now. How about you? Any hair challenges? 

Leora: I’m starting to go grey and trying to decide whether to honour my inner “silver goddess” and embrace this sign of aging – or listen to the part of me that says “Who are you kidding? You look better without it.” A good friend of mine is a prominent former TV anchor who has the most gorgeous silver hair. She’s my inspiration for what I hope my hair could eventually become.

I’m also noticing more hair coming out in my brush or the shower. My mother’s hair thinned as she got older, and while it’s a normal part of aging, I’m wondering if that’s going to happen to me too.

*****

Hairy Tales is written, directed and produced by acclaimed filmmaker Leora Eisen (In the Vault Productions), and co-directed by award-winning director Chris Strikes.
WORLD BROADCAST PREMIERE:  Thursday March 7, 2024 – 9:00pm ET on CBC’s The Nature of Things. STREAMING: begins on CBC GEM Thursday, March 7, 2024.