Sawyers was born with a genetic condition that created “deformities” in her hands and feet.
Sawyers was born with a genetic condition that created “deformities” in her hands and feet. Getting Unlocked/Instagram

Ever since Jessie Sawyers was 11 years old, there’s been what she calls an “element of concealment” in her life. But now, methodically and generously, Sawyers is trying to eliminate that element—and help others to do so the same—through her new project, Getting Unlocked.

What began in 2016 as an Instagram series has now blossomed into a full-on business for Sawyers, 31, who explained in a recent Facebook post that she’d been born with a genetic condition that created “deformities” in her hands and feet. At age 11, Sawyers began to lose her hair and at 20 she needed a full set of false teeth, she explains. Inspired by a solo cross-continental trip, Sawyers, who is also a world-class tap dancer, came up with an idea. “I started writing the outline sketch for a book,” she says, “centered around my experiences, and particularly my experience with hair loss.”

Even though Sawyers began to lose her hair at 11, doctors wre unsure about the cause, and it took some time before she donned her first wig. “We tried a whole slew of things and the doctors kept saying to just wait and see, which sucked,” she says. “I got tired. Energetically, I wanted this ‘let your hair down’ sense of internal freedom. So I started wearing wigs, which made things easier.”

And while Sawyers felt more and more comfortable in social settings, she never felt comfortable as herself, without the wigs. People would approach her and ask her for her hairdresser’s information. “I’d say, ‘I wish I could tell you,’” Sawyers says. But it was traveling, and a romantic encounter in Bangladesh, that, Sawyers says, made her feel a new sense of comfort. “It was that sigh-of-relief moment,” she says.

Armed with that new sense of self-appreciation, Sawyers began to research book production. But, she soon found out, the modern publishing world has dictated new rules. Sawyers learned that she needed to develop a “platform” before trying to publish. As a result, the Getting Unlocked Instagram handle was born. And now, she says, it’s time to implement phase two: Sawyers, and her business partner, Jeff Clark, who she’d met at a tap dance tour, opened up an ecommerce site where they sell t-shirts with the slogan, “I Welcome Your Differences.”

“We’re really excited to get these out in the world,” says Clark in the Facebook video, “because we’ve seen firsthand how wearing them can really make someone smile, it makes them feel good, and it opens up so many new conversations.” Now through January 21st, for every t-shirt sold, Getting Unlocked will donate one winter coat to Seattle’s Mary’s Place homeless shelters. Those interested in also donating can drop coats off at Modo Yoga in Greenlake, where Sawyers has setup a pickup location.

And the next step, Sawyers says, will be to produce a Getting Unlocked film to continue the conversation about how the nuances of physical differences should be celebrated and not derided. Sawyers plans to shave her head on camera, an act she says she’s never done before. “I don’t feel comfortable without a wig or hat on in front of people,” she admits, “the remnants of my hair have always felt unclean. But having a short film to document that moment—shaving my head—that’s a big one for me.”

While Sawyers is still in the early stages of building and getting her LLC off the ground, she plans to keep sharing her story in the hopes of making others feel more comfortable with their own bodies. “We have to learn how to own our realities,” she says, “and thrive.”