Like many people, Sonya Keshwani’s breast cancer diagnosis came as a surprise.
“It was not something that was on my radar,” she says. “I didn’t have any family history.” After finding a suspicious lump in the shower, she was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer at age 29. Although Keshwani lived and worked in Washington D.C. full-time, she decided to get treatment in New York near her family.
Yet despite being proactive about her health, Keshwani says she was less familiar with the common side effects of cancer treatment. “I entered it with a little naïveté because I didn’t have anyone really telling me what happens when you go through cancer and what happens when you go through chemo,” she says.
What happened was hair loss, among other side effects. “When that happened, it was a big eye-opener. I knew that it would take place and I worked on acceptance from a very early standpoint,” says Keshwani. “I accepted that it was going to happen, but when it actually happened, it was a whole other level because physically, the toll that it takes on your body, on your head, it’s really tough. It makes your scalp very raw, very sensitive. The trauma […] is really jarring.”
Keshwani decided to shave her head before the hair fell out entirely. Although she was bald at home, she wore a wig when going out. The hair, unfortunately, did not make her feel like her authentic self. “I didn’t want an imposter of my hair,” Keshwani says of her naturally curly hair. Soon, she began thinking about headwrap solutions to feel more like herself.
StyleEsteem was soon born. Every time Keshwani visited her infusion center in Astoria, Queens, she went to a nearby fabric shop. There, she’d purchase a few yards of cloth, take them home and sew while recovering.
“Eventually, I came up with styles that were really awesome and they made me feel like myself. And if I was standing out, it was because I looked good and stylish and chic,” she recalls. Wearing her headwraps brought back joy and control to a situation that was ultimately taken out of her hands. “When I started to make the headwraps, I knew that it was going to be more than headwraps for me.”
In March 2019, she officially moved back to New York full-time to focus on her business. Like other designers, Keshwani creates seasonal collections for her brand so her customers have a variety of pieces they can incorporate into their wardrobe at any given time. “As women, we don’t wear the same cocktail dress when we go out [on] Friday, Saturday, Sunday. It’s not happening, so this is the same concept. You’re going to switch it out based on your mood or your occasion,” she says. Her pieces are also designed not only for style but for functionality. Each is one size fits all and she chooses fabrics that have some stretch or give to accommodate different head sizes.
Although her close friends and immediate family were aware of her diagnosis, Keshwani didn’t come clean to others until after she completed chemotherapy. “When I started to talk about StyleEsteem, it was at the same time that I started to talk about me,” she says. She wrote a Facebook post about wearing wigs, going public about her diagnosis and discussing what she’s doing now.
“Personally, where I come from, culturally speaking, this is not something you talk about or parade around,” she begins. “But I was at a point where I knew I was put through this—me specifically—because I would go public, because I would make it okay for other women in my community.”
And now that she has told her community about her experience, she feels compelled to follow through on her aspirations. Her aim is to become a resource for other women experiencing hair loss. Keshwani wants StyleEsteem to be a source of uplift for the women around her. “Hair loss doesn’t make you any less pretty. It doesn’t make you any less of a woman. And it’s not taking away from the real you,” she says. “That’s still inside of you. You just need different ways to showcase it.”