Five years ago, a fifteen-year-old reader named Sanah Jivani wrote a letter to an author she had never met. Jivani lost her hair to alopecia and had been struggling with feelings of insecurity. Reading Natasha Friend’s novel Perfect inspired her to love herself just the way she was. She shared her story in a letter to Friend, who was so affected that she didn’t just write back, she wrote a book, How We Roll, about a girl with alopecia and dedicated it to Jivani. Here, Friend and Jivani (who have still never met in person) talk about the power of language and the ways that our words can change the world.
Natasha Friend: What made you decide to write to me?
Sanah Jivani: When I was in the 7th grade, I lost all of my hair to a condition called alopecia, and I felt far from perfect. But even at the peak of my suffering, the constant desire to appear perfect ruled my mind. Growing up, there was never a moment I felt I could let my guard down. Then I came across your book, aptly titled Perfect. It was vulnerable and inspiring and life-changing. For the first time, I felt like I wasn’t alone. I felt like I could embrace the imperfect parts of myself. I felt like I could breathe again, and I wanted to thank you for writing something so beautiful. So I wrote you a letter.
NF: Oh, your letter. It cracked my heart wide open. The way you described feeling worthless, how you turned to self-harm and bulimia as a way of coping—I just wanted to reach out and give you a hug. But there you were in Texas, and here I was in Connecticut, so I did the next best thing: I wrote back.
SJ: I actually remember that day. Reading your letter gave me hope at a time when I really needed it. Growing up, my mom was my best friend. She was one of the only constants in my life. Through the hard times, the bullying, and the insecurity, my mom supported me in a way that I am so grateful for. When I received your letter, my mom was out of the country for three months. She was visiting family in Pakistan, and I remember feeling so alone and afraid without her. Your letter, and the love it was written with, brought a smile to my face. I immediately took photos of everything you sent me. I wanted the feeling I got and the memories to last forever. I felt so thrilled that one of my personal heroes not only knew my story, but also took the time to acknowledge it. You made me feel heard, and that is a beautiful gift.
NF: Well, your letter was a gift to me too. It stuck with me. The idea of writing about a girl with Alopecia, someone who was grappling with issues of self worth and acceptance—I couldn’t shake it. Did you think it was weird when I called you five years later to tell you I’d written a book and dedicated it to you?
SJ: I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, to be honest. It was one of those moments that made all of the hard times feel worth it. The days I was struggling as a teen, I would think to myself, “Why is all of this happening to me?” As I got older, I finally figured out the “why.” I realized that my story not only makes me who I am, it can also be used as a vehicle for change. When you told me you wrote a book about a girl with Alopecia because of my letter, I was reminded to keep telling my story even when my voice is shaking.
NF: Absolutely. Stories are what bring us together, even when they’re hard to tell. What are you doing with your story now?
SJ: I am the founder and CEO of a non-profit organization called the Love Your Natural Self Foundation. We teach self-love to students around the globe. To date, I’ve reached over 30,000 students in 28 countries and 100 schools. I am able to work with students going through the same things that I went through. I’m so proud when I think about how far I’ve come.
NF: You should be proud! If you could give one piece of advice to a young reader who’s worried about being different and not fitting in, what would it be?
SJ: Realize that your differences make you who you are. Even though those things may make you feel insecure, know that there is so much strength in your uniqueness. When I lost my hair, I thought it was the worst thing about myself. Now, I see my hair loss as a gift that I can use to inspire and motivate others.
NF: Yes, yes, yes! To quote the amazing Brenè Brown, “Courage (from latin: coeur): to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.” That’s what you’re doing. And I hope that’s what readers of How We Roll will come away with, too: the courage to tell their stories with their whole hearts.
Natasha Friend is the award winning author of How We Roll, Where You’ll Find Me, Perfect, Lush, Bounce, For Keeps, My Life in Black and White, and The Other F-Word. When she’s not writing, she’s reading, belting out showtunes in the kitchen, and washing baseball pants. That’s how she rolls.
Natasha and Sanah have never met in person, but they hope they will soon!