No Fluffy Self-LoveSonalee Rashatwar Is Returning Body Positivity to Its Political Roots

Sonalee Rashatwar (Photo courtesy of Sonalee Rashatwar)

I first met Sonalee Rashatwar—the brilliant person behind the @thefatsextherapist Instagram account—when she (Rashatwar also uses they pronouns) entered Widener University’s Human Sexuality Studies graduate program in 2013. While it’s easy to assume that people  who study sexuality are inherently radical—or at least progressive—the reality is that finding a like-minded person, especially one as warm as Rashatwar, was more than a breath of fresh air. Meeting her was like discovering oxygen itself.

Rashatwar is an award-winning social worker, sex therapist, adjunct lecturer, and community organizer who has, among other accomplishments, fundraised for and facilitated East Coast Solidarity Summer, a free five-day political-action summer camp for LGBTQ South Asian and Indo-Caribbean youth. She also travels around the world to educate others about decolonial sexualities, fat-positive wellness, disability justice, and more. But Rashatwar’s impressive résumé doesn’t encapsulate what really draws people to her: her presence. With a personality that can only be described as sunshine personified, her liberation-oriented thinking, commitment to anti-oppression education, and practice of what she calls “radical softness” always leaves me feeling nourished.

So when her Instagram account started growing wildly in the fall of 2018, I was both unsurprised and excited that so many others could bask in her glow. I recently talked to Rashatwar about the values and experiences that drive her work, how mainstream conversations on body positivity can shift, and the difficulties of public radicalism.

How do you define the work you do as @thefatsextherapist?

I define my work as self-medicine [or a] process of becoming my own medicine and healing younger versions of myself. The work that I do on Instagram, which is creating [unpaid] political education content, is especially shit that I wish someone had told me when I was a teenager.

I’m speaking to other fat folks of color—and not small fats, but super-fats and infinifats of color—because the fatphobia that we experience is so different. It’s racialized, gendered, and ableist. I’m noticing that the fluffy body-positive world is influenced by [my] radical fat-liberation messages, which is wonderful. I want the message to shift the way that we value bodies [and how] we understand capitalism, white supremacy, and colonialism as the influence of these ideas. My ideas undermine these structures—[the point is] destabilizing and disrupting the status quo. But when my audience became predominantly white, they became really perturbed [by] my message.

We talk about centering the most marginalized in conversations, especially because that still helps folks who hold more power, whereas the reverse isn’t true. But it’s interesting that the same privileged people who are healed by your message are also angry about it.

Right. When I talk about Palestine, when I talk about white supremacy, when I talk about being anti-police, when I talk about being anti-prisons, white folks sometimes will come into my DMs, and they’ll be like, “This is not something that I’m here for.” But this has always been part of my politic. It has never changed.

This apolitical body-positive movement has become a white-identity issue movement. [People in it] center white supremacy when they think about body image and body size, and they’re stuck with this white-centered lens where body image is an individualized experience between their body and their mirror. But when we politicize body image, the experience becomes so much bigger. It’s no longer individualized. Systems can have body image issues: For example, when a system is anti-Black, it codes Blackness as a threat, or something that’s negative, onto a body. Blackness becomes a symbol.

So many people want fluffy self-love—“Just love your body out of its oppression!”—[and that’s] not content I’m interested in making. Obviously, I want us to love ourselves. Obviously, I want us to give ourselves pleasure. Obviously, I want us not to think of ourselves as broken or damaged because of the trauma we’ve experienced and survived. But when apolitical folks follow my platform and then realize [it’s] an anti-capitalist, anti-establishment, anti-police, pro-fat, pro-Black, pro-Indigenous, pro-Palestine platform, they’re like, “That’s not what I signed up for.”

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So when it comes to thinking about body image in a politicized way, how does the mainstream narrative need to be disrupted?

We need folks to literally pass the mic because white, apolitical bo-po influencers—especially [those who are] thin and conventionally attractive—never include race in their analysis. They never think beyond “It’s cool to not think of foods as a good-and-bad binary.” They don’t talk about fatphobia: about how we’re afraid of becoming fat, distancing [ourselves from] friends [who] are fat—and don’t get me started on culturally avoiding dating fat people. When we don’t talk about fatphobia and politicize it as a form of oppression, we’re not fully understanding the layers of structural oppression.

We’re left thinking [about] fatphobia as someone not liking being fat or not enjoying the beauty of being fat. We forget that there are, for instance, medications I can’t take because they’re not dosed right for my body. Plan B is only dosed for folks [who are] up to 175 pounds! I can’t even fit into all the medical equipment at the doctor’s [office] because it’s not designed for my body. I get paid less. I am less likely to be hired in a job interview. My body size is used as a punchline in movies and television. I’m prohibited from accessing fertility treatment [if I’m] over a certain BMI. Some adoption agencies won’t allow me to adopt [for the same reason]. I can’t find clothes in a brick-and-mortar store; if my suitcase [were] to get lost while I’m traveling, forget about it. I can [only] find clothes online. Plus-size stores don’t carry clothes at the larger end of the spectrum in the store, because god forbid we decide to shop in public.

So when I talk about colonialism, when I talk about Palestine, when I talk about the project of U.S. empire, it’s really important to make sure that fatphobia is understood as a part of all those things. Body size compounds the experience of marginalization if the individual is already racialized, gendered, queered, disabled, Indigenous, and living under occupation. Body-image surveillance can look like food policing or fat shaming. The war on obesity has made healthism into a weapon of the nation-state in order to treat fat as [a] disease. These are all structural and systemic issues that go far beyond my reflection in a mirror.

There are very real dangers associated with being a digital activist with radical politics. You’ve recently experienced people harassing and threatening you for upending the status quo. Can you tell me more about that?

Recently, I gave a lecture at St. Olaf College, a university in Minnesota [that has] a huge division on campus between radical-right and radical-left students. The latter [group] brought me to campus to help students understand how fatphobia is linked to many larger systems of domination, like white supremacy, late-stage capitalism, and ableism. But there were white supremacists who wasted their beautiful Thursday evening [attending] a lecture that they totally disagreed with for the purpose of collecting information for an article. And the article went viral: Larger outlets like Breitbart, wrote iterations of it; Ann Coulter tweeted [about] it.

People were really upset by three main ideas. One was that children can’t consent to [being put on] a diet. The second was that diet culture and fatphobia can be forms of sexual violence. And the third was that I wasn’t surprised that the man who shot up Christchurch, New Zealand, was a personal trainer. White supremacists really hate their ideas being exposed; they hate their methodology being written about or discussed out loud. I don’t understand why white supremacists hate fat people—other than just that it’s something to hate. So we hate this part of ourselves that we don’t allow to exist, and we project that hate onto another body because the emotion is so uncomfortable to withstand. So what I can best assume is that people are like, “I’m so strongly preventing myself from being fat, but you’re just out here letting yourself do it. I hate that about you because I hate that about me.” Being on the receiving end of that hate has been interesting.

I have also been targeted by Zionists because I talked about the occupation of Palestine and Israeli apartheid, [both of] which are body-image issues. Occupation is a body-image issue because Palestinian ethnic identity is coded and mapped onto [bodies]. Palestinian bodies must pass through checkpoints because they have different passports and live by a separate set of laws than Israelis. Zionists were pissed [that I said this]; someone created a fake DM that made it look like I was saying something that was pro-Holocaust. I am not antisemitic. I deeply value Jewish people. I do not believe that the Holocaust should’ve happened or that post-Holocaust, there shouldn’t have been some kind of remuneration.

Ethnostates are not good things—and that’s not a radical opinion. I don’t believe that an ethnostate should exist in the United States because white nationalists would also like an ethnostate here. In India, Hindus also want a Hindu ethnostate. And that’s not okay because anyone who’s considered caste-oppressed, or a religious minority, or an ethnic minority becomes targeted by Hindu fascists. When those places become occupied, people like Palestinians and Kashmiris become segregated within their own homeland.

What are we rejecting within us by rejecting fat people?

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How does your lived experience play a role in the work you do?

[I want] to heal younger versions of myself. When I think about my connection to the beliefs that all bodies have inherent value or that fat bodies deserve to exist, that comes from growing up fat. I was always told that my body was too big: It took up too much space; I was too loud; I was too messy. But mostly, my fat body needed to be smaller.

And so I was put on nonconsensual diets—and I explicitly call them that because I do not believe that children can consent to a diet. I didn’t consent to diets when I was a child. I didn’t consent to being given different foods [than] my younger siblings. I didn’t consent to being singled out from my siblings and made to run and do other exercise in order to be able to sit down at the table for dinner. I didn’t consent to being taken to an Ayurvedic shaman who, upon taking my pulse, was like, “You have a hormonal imbalance.” I didn’t consent to the ways that my body was experimented on throughout my formative [years of] body-image growth.

The last straw was when I almost had weight-loss surgery in my early 20s. I was really pressured by my parents. They were like, “We’ll get you the best insurance. We’ll pay for any plastic surgery you need for all the loose skin that you’ll have—and you’ll look amazing. We’ll pay for this whole new wardrobe you’re going to have when you are a totally different body size.” They were like, “We’ll get you a sports car. We’ll get you whatever you want.” The way that money was dangled over me—because I come from a wealthy family—was financial abuse. And, [I’m] now in my 30s [and] they are still trying to convince me to lose weight.

So I understand all of my experiences through the lens of trauma, through the lens of structural oppression [and] cisheteropatriarchy. My younger brother and I were practically identical. We could have been body doubles, and he didn’t receive one ounce of the scrutiny that I did. It’s difficult because, as an immigrant kid especially, there’s this weird need to protect the mythology of the immigrant parent as someone who is all-sacrificing. I romanticize so many things about the immigrant-parent struggle, so [it has] made it hard for me to criticize. I’m really new to talking about what I’ve been through and naming those things. But my lived experience connects to the theory. My political education comes from the analysis of experiences I have survived.

What is one thing that you hope people take away from your work?

I really want folks to analyze [how] they are gatekeeping fat people out of their lives. I use the lens of the social model of disability—a framework often used in disability justice—when I think about how it’s not the impairment itself that’s disabling; it’s the way that society excludes disabled folks from fully participating in society. That’s very similar to how we understand fatphobia: It’s not hard to be fat because of my fat body, but it’s hard when people are fatcalling me on the sidewalk, staring at me in the grocery store, being unnecessarily mean to me when I’m out to dinner, not swiping right on me on Tinder, or wanting a casual relationship but not something public.

The way [in which] we keep fat folks out of our lives is a form of body-image segregation, which makes it uncomfortable to be out in public. For instance, I’m afraid to travel because of fatcalling. When I was traveling in India and Nepal a couple years ago, it was horrifying: People were taking photos [and] videos of me on the street. It felt like I was like a spectacle. I was fatcalled while traveling in Amsterdam. People would yell from inside of a bar, “Burger King is that way!” So I want people to consider: What are the ways that we keep fat folks at arm’s [length] so that we separate any internal solidarity? Where does that rejection come from? And what are we rejecting within us by rejecting fat people?

There’s more…

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by Melissa A. Fabello PhD
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Melissa A. Fabello, PhD is a feminist educator whose work focuses on body politics, beauty culture, and eating disorders. She holds a PhD in Human Sexuality Studies from Widener University. Learn more about her work (and sign up for her newsletter) at her website. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @fyeahmfabello.