For National Hat Day Sonya Keshwani, founder of StyleEsteem Wardrobe, was interviewed by Dana Donofree, founder of AnaOno Intimates. Watch their Instagram Live and read the interview below, and share with us what Hat Day means to you in the comments!
Original Blog Post from AnaOno Intimates
IT’S HAT DAY, AND WE WANT TO CELEBRATE OUR FAV, STYLE ESTEEM FOUNDER SONYA KESHWANI
StyleEsteem Wardrobe was created by young breast cancer survivor Sonya, to give women of all hair journeys the choice of fashionable headwear. At StyleEsteem you can shop for turbans the same way you shop for clothes, by season and occasion. From lounge wear to couture styles, each turban was created to empower you with elegance, confidence and dignity as you live your beautiful story.
StyleEsteem is also a community for fashion, humor and support for anyone experiencing hair loss. StyleEsteem’s blog and social media serve as resources that Sonya wishes she had when she was in chemotherapy. StyleEsteem believes that you meet your most powerful and beautiful self through this journey. And through this community, you don’t have to walk that path alone.
Sonya, tell us a little bit about yourself.
As far back as I can remember, I had a dream of fashion design. That dream stayed with me through the years as I went to college and graduate school in Washington, DC, and started a career in government as a public affairs official. A few years into what I thought was my dream job, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and this ended up changing my life in so many ways. The experience of chemo and hair loss caused me to turn to fashion design to create the stylish headwear I wanted but couldn’t find in stores.
When I decided to turn my personal turban styles into a business, I moved back home to NYC to be closer to family and pursue entrepreneurship full time. While I worked hard to grow StyleEsteem into the hair-positive community I wish I had during my own treatment, I also started teaching strategic communications at Columbia University. During that time, I met my now husband (two years after diagnosis!), dated and got married during the pandemic, and started our new life together. Today we split our time between Greenwich, CT and NYC, and enjoy sailing, giving cuddles to our fur baby Lady Gaga, and of course working on our businesses.
What was it like to get diagnosed with breast cancer at age 29?
At 29, I was living a fast-paced life and defined my fulfillment through my career. Diagnosis forced me to slow down and take life day by day, and some days, minute by minute. The uncertainty that diagnosis created in my otherwise well-planned life filled me with anxiety and fear. It was then that I decided, while these things would naturally be present, I did not have to lend them my focus. I chose to focus on the silver linings – like being able to spend more time with my parents because I was at home recovering from chemo – and gained my strength to move forward from those positives. It changed how I experienced even the hardest days when I looked at the world around me in a search for silver linings. It is a strategy I use consciously, and I practice it regularly even today. This is what helps me feel gratitude after one of the toughest challenges of my life.
At the time of my diagnosis, there had been no known cases of breast cancer or genetic mutations in my family lineage. And discussing the topic in my Indian-Muslim community was largely taboo. I promised myself that if I was blessed enough to live to tell the story of my diagnosis, that it would be backed with advocacy for self-breast exams and genetic awareness. I wanted my experience to serve as a source of strength and motivation for others when it came to breast health, especially in brown and Asian communities.
Losing one’s hair can be the most traumatic part of cancer treatment for some, what was it like for you?
Universally, it seems like the “cancer patient” is defined in society by a bald head and the inevitable wig. So, when I was told to buy my doctor to purchase a wig in preparation for hair loss, I thought I had done all I could to help myself and the rest would simply unfold.
I quickly learned that hair loss comes with a number of painful side effects that no one prepares you for – scalp sensitivity, bruising, and migraines to name just a few. Then, seeing my hair fall out in clumps – in the shower, in the grocery store, on the metro – made me feel incredibly helpless. I became unable to recognize myself in the mirror and was afraid this would translate to my daily life, and my ability to cope and heal.
I decided in that moment, that I would use my hair loss to regain my control by shaving my head. I invited my family to meet me at a salon in Manhattan (The Hair Place) that helps cancer patients. My family hugged me and cheered me on as I had my head shaved and treated myself to a scalp massage and shampoo. This single afternoon brought me so much dignity. And it helped me understand that my hair journey can be asource of dignity. Small acts of self-care, like scalp oil massages or coordinating my turbans with my outfits, brought the control and individuality back in my life that I thought cancer had stolen away. Overtime I began to view my bald head as a badge of courage, and met a version of my beauty that transcended the standards as defined by society.
I love that you took the energy from this experience and DID SOMETHING about it! Tell us what you did and how you came to launch StyleEsteem!
Remember the wig I mentioned? Well, I found myself commuting to work in the hot DC summer with my wig in a Ziploc bag in my purse. It was then that the allure of my faux blonde bob weaned off, and I found my wig feeling inauthentic and incredibly uncomfortable. When I searched for head coverings for cancer patients, all I found was drab chemo beanies that made me look and feel like a sick person. I didn’t want to become the fashion industry’s version of a cancer patient. I wanted to make this journey my own.
So, I decided to create my own solution. Each time I traveled to NYC for chemo, I visited a fabric shop down the street from my infusion center in Queens. In the week that I would recover from chemo on my parents’ couch, I would use my mom’s sewing machine to experiment with fabric. The styles I came up with brought back a priceless sense of normalcy to my life. I was able to do the little things again – like meet my girlfriends for brunch or enjoy a walk in the park – without having to worry about a wig-malfunction or discomfort. And more importantly, I was able to dress in a way that celebrated my hair journey through my style. My turbans helped me live my fullest life during diagnosis. I wanted to make sure the women who came after me had the same stylish options that I did. This is what inspired me to create StyleEsteem.
I know what it feels like to want to solve a problem that was life-changing during cancer treatment, I like to think that if AnaOno can impact just one person’s life and their story through their cancer treatment, I did my job the for the day. What keeps you motivated to continue to build Style Esteem?
I remember what it was like to face chemo and hair loss, and to not be prepared with information about what to expect. To not have fashionable headwear that celebrated my story. To not feel represented by the visual landscape of a cancer patient as a brown woman. My vision is for StyleEsteem to be a source of empowerment and confidence for other women, that I wish I had during treatment. I don’t simply want to give women a piece of fabric and tell them everything is going to be okay. I want them to understand that there is great power in how you approach your hair journey and how you decide to care for yourself through this process. This is what keeps me motivated to continue growing StyleEsteem not only through our beautiful turbans, but also as a community and a blog for hair loss support.
Today is International Hat Day, and you are our favorite! What does today mean to you?
Thank you so much! Today reminds me that fashion has the power to change your perspective. And that something like a turban, can be your superhero cape if you are facing cancer.
If you were to name a day, any day, what would YOUR day be named?
Great question! I think everyone could benefit from StyleEsteem Day – a day to celebrate how you express your uniqueness, your triumphs, and your dreams, through your fashion!
We are all in this together! Once diagnosed with cancer, life changes as we know it. I am always so honored and so proud to see what comes after. Some start businesses, like you and me. Some start non-profits, some become allies, advocates or activists. To me, this is our community and I love everyone in it. Can you share with us, what does “Never Alone” mean to you.
“Never Alone” means that we are all connected to each other through our stories. And when we share our stories, we let go of the darkness and become surrounded by the light of others. Thank you for sharing my story on your blog, Dana. I hope that my story helps someone who needs it also feel like they are “Never Alone”.
StyleEsteem has created a special discount code for the AnaOno community! Use the code ANAONO20 for 20% off your entire order at StyleEsteem.com (some restrictions apply).