Sonalee Rashatwar The Fat Sex Therapist an Interview with Mimi Tempestt
Photographer Kenzi Crash
On the surface, fat, sex, and therapy are seemingly separate topics of conversation when thinking about the current political and social movement surrounding body positivity. For Sonalee Rashtwar, an award-winning social worker, sex therapist who specializes in sexual trauma and self-professed donut queen, fat, sex, and therapy are all intersections of a much larger conversation of how capitalism and patriarchy seeps into our everyday interactions with body image, racial identity, gender identity, and sexuality. Rashatwar, known by their moniker @thefatsextherapist on Instagram, is notably vocal and visible on their stance on body positivity, often challenging diet culture and shedding light on how fat liberation should be centered in the decolonization of white supremacist ideologies.
Rashatwar comes from a South Asian cultural background, hails from Philadelphia, and has garnered both national and international attention through Instagram with a following that has grown (and continues to grow) from 5K to 46.8K in a matter of a few months. Arguably, Sonalee Rashatwar is a major player amongst the multiplicity of voices who are speaking, writing, and theorizing on the subjects of feminism, race politics, body politics, and fat liberation. With a Masters degree in Social Work and a Masters degree in Education in Human Sexuality from Widener University, they join the likes of Ericka Hart, Lindy West, Virgie Tovar, and other reputable figures who are pushing the boundaries of conversations and socializations surrounding the body positivity movement.
When speaking with Sonalee, what is most apparent is an unrelenting passion to discuss the work they do, combined with a softness to articulate their point. Rashatwar, who is no stranger to both praise and criticism, stands firm in explicitly bringing to surface how body image issues are directly correlated to colonization and white supremacy. From posting a light-hearted video of themselves eating a Reese’s Pieces bar while showering to participate in the #cleaneatingchallenge or clapping back at followers and exposing fake accounts which subject them to online harassment for their pro-palestine and anti-zionist beliefs, Rashatwar holds their own weight in the fight for decolonization and fatphobia one post at a time.
MT: What made you want to begin this journey of exploring the work around sexual trauma and decolonizing fatness?
SR: This feels arrogant, but it started with me. It was me understanding my own experience of sexual trauma and abusive relationships. And in my introduction to grad school, I better understood that experience. The academy is violent, and I was deeply upset by the literature in social work and sex. For example, all the illustrations of anatomy were of cis white people. It’s infuriating to not see yourself in course material, and I’m trying to fill in that gap. I want to be that person I wish I had as a kid. Or be that person I wish I had even nine years ago. All movements begin with self-love, and that is essential to understanding how movements work.
MT: What are some tangible habits we can do in our everyday lives to point out how systems of "acceptable sexuality" (a term they use) function around or within us? How can we deconstruct them?
SR: When we focus on an internal sense of peace, we are able to deconstruct any system that determines what parts of us are acceptable and unacceptable. I think we need to rethink how we do self-care and we should always consider that this means to find a calm space within ourselves. Self-care shouldn’t cost money. For me it looks like treating myself well, and I often say “I don’t have to buy my self-care” or “I don’t have to buy my inner peace.” It also looks like doing super mundane things, and counting the small wins to boost your self-esteem. Brushing your teeth, for example, is self-care. My own way of self-care looks like emptying my dishes out the sink by cleaning them. I take a before and after picture and this just makes everything feel cleaner. It’s all about feeling like an actual human being instead of useless assholes [they say this while laughing].
MT: There is a growing social phenomenon around the theorization surrounding fatness. I can think of Roxane Gay, Lindy West, You, Erica Hart, etc. Why do you think this is occurring now? What do you hope to add to this phenomenon?
SR: Wow! I do think that is occuring right now, and I think it’s because people are looking for this content. The platform of Instagram, even though it’s Instagram, is still conducting theory, while not technically using the words theory. [With a slight pause] The answer is always capitalism. I was approached in the Spring and asked if was interested in publishing a book, and this usually comes with a book tour, possibly a series or movie, depending how well it does. And this made me realize that the movement is exploitable. So then we can ask “who it exploiting it?” [On Roxane Gay] I think the movement is popular because she went viral, and she is present in activist writing spheres, but soon, especially this upcoming year, we are going to see more publications and media around body positivity. It’s all about making yourself more marketable and right now the consumer is craving content that is “anti-diet.” Within the self-help industry, woman have been socialized to consistently work on themselves. So it’s important to be conscious of how we as activists may be fueling this industry by exploiting the movement and replacing it with our own content, but never really facilitating change and addressing the things we need to work on.
MT: What do you mean when you say “thinness” is a white supremacist beauty ideal?
SR: Thinness is a concept used to reinforce the U.S. empire. It all stems from a false belief that thinness is good health, but to be fat is bad health. Diet culture sells us a myth that we have control of our bodies, which is how the diet industry grosses billions of dollars in revenue, right? Statistically we know that 95% of diets fail, and what this myth does is make entire groups of marginalized people, whose body are considered fat because a combination of genetics and social determinants, responsible for earning their humanity. This seems harmless at first, but think of how insurance companies have been able to profit off of or deny coverage to millions of people because of this myth. It’s our job to ask ourselves to examine how we are engaging with this myth and radicalize ourselves to unlearn it.
MT: What is the common criticism you receive from your stance on fat phobia? How do you deal with that?
SR: I’ve shut off the ability for people who are non-followers to comment on my posts, so that has been helpful. In March of last year I went viral on Breitbart, and I received online bullying from people who disagreed with my views. They were predicting the year I was going to die, saying “your choices will lead you to die,” and “well, what you are doing is trying to contort the world to make it okay for you to exist.” [they laugh about this last statement] And that’s the whole point, that’s legitimate. All their criticisms are inherently silked in Eugenics [the belief of increasing the human population and prolonging human life], and what they are telling me is “you are promoting the end of the human race.” This is all a result of ableism, the belief that disease is the end of life all together, and anti-fatness. Sometimes I work with moms who are scared of their children getting fat. What they will do is deny their child certain foods, and when they do this they are passing down eating disorders that will develop as the child gets older in life. I’m pushing for the belief that your whole life shouldn’t be about working against your genetics. We shouldn’t put food in hierarchies, oppression comes from hierarchies.
MT: In August of last year you had 5k followers on instagram, and recently just announced you have 46k...How is this visibility affecting you?
SR: Oh wow! I think this [their instagram] is content people have been looking for, and that it’s unique because body positivity is not a one issue thing. I think of Kimberlé Crenshaw when I’m discussing the issues I bring up on my Instagram or speaking to others, and what we know is that individual living exists at different intersections. I am also conscious of how much time I spend on Instagram. I can tell how well my day is, based on how much time I’ve spent on the phone. I don’t like to say good or bad, but for the sake of my point, if I spent over 5 hours on my phone it’s been a bad day, and if I spent over 3 hours on my phone it’s been good. I literally talk to myself and tell myself to get off the phone. [laughs] I say “Okay Sonalee, put the phone down,” and I’ve found that when I say it out loud it helps me enjoy to the small moments.
MT: When you aren't "The Fat Sex Therapist" who are you? What do you do for fun and pleasure?
SR: My favorite self-care activity is to eat food that I enjoy or crave. If I have a sweet tooth, I will buy pie, and when I’m traveling I’m always stopping at the weirdest bakeries. I love trying new things! I love hanging out with my friends, and watching horrors films, especially movies with hauntings and possessions. I collect art made by POC artists. I love going to antique stores, and buying second-hand furniture. I also like to going on food adventures with my friends from out of town. When they come to Philly, I like taking them on food tours of the best restaurants.
MT: How do you personally facilitate self-care when you give so much to others?
SR: It’s an intentional process. I spend a lot of time by myself. Social interactions cost me a lot of energy, so I have to be conscious of how I spend my time.
MT: Are there any upcoming speaking events, publications, appearances that you want us to know about?
SR: You can always find information on my website [https://www.sonaleer.com] and on Instagram. I will be in Pennsylvania on February 28th, in Minnesota on April 18th, and I will be conducting a workshop in Minneapolis on April 19th.
MT: What type of work do you do in your workshops?
SR: I do a standard 2-hour body image workshop where we discuss how weight is used to facilitate judgement, and how that judgement is based in white supremacy. We also examine how patriarchy is a set of systems and structures that has damage on how we see ourselves.
MT: Is there anything else you haven’t spoken about that you would like to express?
SR: Yes! For folks who are new to the movement, you can spot an uncritical person if they are unwilling to talk about white supremacy, racism, and zionism. It is not okay to silent a black activist, and some folks in this movement need to work on their shit. Critics need to be conscious of who they look to as leaders of this movement. There was in an incident where my friend, Ericka Hart (@ihartericka), was asked to contribute an essay for an anthology of another well-known person within the movement. This person later approached Ericka and said she wasn’t comfortable in publishing the essay, because the use of the language “white supremacists.” It’s interesting how she invited Ericka to submit, but didn’t like co-opting actual struggles. I think this is an example of how the movement is cheapened or how there is a deluding of the movement. I don’t think small fats should be the leaders of the movement. Small fats is a term that Ashley from the The Fat Lip Podcast uses. White fat activists need to call out other white folks. I think we should always be critical of the individuals we follow within the movement.
MT: Wow! Is there anything else?
SR: I identify as gender non-binary. My pronouns are “she/her” and “them/they.” Gender has everything to do with my fatness. Fat is masculinized, and that feels good to me. Fatness is like transness and disrupts the gender binary.