Sonalee Rashatwar hadn’t planned on being a therapist growing up. Her career path, she explained while sitting in the waiting room of Radical Therapy Center, the practice she co-owns in West Philadelphia, just kind of happened.

Rashatwar, now 31, endured an abusive relationship in her early 20s. After college, she started volunteering for a domestic-violence response team, an experience that showed her that she enjoyed working with other people who had lived through traumas.

“All of my work is to better understand what I’ve experienced,” said Rashatwar, who graduated from Temple University in 2011. “It’s almost like I’m healing younger versions of myself by trying to find language to describe what happened.”

As the fat-positivity movement has gained momentum, so, too, have debates around how fat folks should lead healthy lives. Rashatwar, though, considers how sizeism is affected by racism, misogyny, classism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism, and she counsels people against intentional weight loss.

She pointed to the work of the artist-activist Ashleigh Shackelford, who has written that wearing clothes from the boys’ section growing up, when many items for girls didn’t fit, altered how Shackelford experienced gender. Rashatwar, who noted that people may perceive feminine bodies as more masculine if they’re fat, feels similarly about her upbringing. Being big and being the eldest child, she said, made her feel less like a girl growing up.

Her perspective, one of a fat South Asian nonbinary person, has gained enhanced notoriety through Instagram, where she often posts telegram-like advice to the account @thefatsextherapist. Last July, she celebrated 4,000 followers. Today, her follower count approaches 20 times that.

She posts her advice in colorful blocks of text (“your body is an heirloom," “do you consume porn with bodies that look like yours?”) and then expands on those concepts in the captions.

Rashatwar traces contemporary fatphobia to colonial brutality and how enslaved people were treated. Citing researcher-advocate Caleb Luna, Rashatwar said curing anti-fatness would mean dismantling society’s foundation: “I love to talk about undoing Western civilization because it’s just so romantic to me.”

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take it from me, a semi grown up kid who was emotionally manipulated into non consensual diets starting at ~ 9-10yo . being put on non medically necessary diets messed with my understanding of food scarcity, which impacted my ability to eat food comfortably (even in semi public) while being food surveilled . having my food consumption policed meant i developed creative and adaptive ways to continue being able to eat the foods my body wanted to be able to eat, but it felt stressfully sneaky to eat in private or have to remember to hide food wrappers in my trash can . underage dieting was always an explicit conversation about the sociocultural impact of being fat. i was told in factual non emotional conversations by my parents that i would be less attractive to straight men, which would impact my ability to be successful at any career, and inevitably i would also die from being an obesity time bomb (lol). this caused me to develop triggers during conversations with my parents around scales, food journals, and weight loss as ‘accountability’ . i had to decide very early, if i was going to assimilate into a structure that hurt us all (white supremacists fatphobia). or whether i would try to exist outside that structure. and i’m here to tell you it’s possible to exist outside those structures and have meaningful fulfilling relationships that don’t depend on fatphobic men, or fatphobic supervisors, or constant internalized fear of spontaneous combustion (lol) i didn’t die bc i was less attractive to men, esp once i expanded my understanding of who i could find attractive and be attractive to . working through internalized homophobia and fatphobia can be a long process, so pls do not mistake any of the info i post as personal medical advice. please seek long term therapy with a licensed person you trust ❤️ . and most of all, encourage young people you are exposed to who are put on non consensual diets or hypnotized by diet culture to consider a life outside of fatphobia. if we can dream it, we can better imagine the steps it would take to get there

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We asked Rashatwar, a proud South Jersey native, about Instagram therapy, controversy over some of her comments, and how fatness affects sexuality.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

On the effects of fat trauma

"What some folks think is trauma is like the event itself that happened, like the car accident that I got into is the trauma. But that’s the event. What trauma is, is what gets stuck in my body. And the way that I react when I’m in a car in the future and it stops really quickly. That’s a trauma response.

“And so when we internalize fatphobia and we really, like, personalize a fat, traumatic experience, it can impact our sexuality by making it uncomfortable to receive a hug because we feel like, ‘The person hugging me is probably so repulsed by touching my body. Let’s just get the hug over with quickly.’

"Even though sometimes we’re starved for skin touch. Some of the fat clients that I work with, the only time when people touch their bodies is when they pay for a massage or when they’re paying for Reiki or some other kind of somatic body work. And that can feel devastating when that’s the only time that someone’s affectionately, lovingly, caringly touching your body.”

How self-worth can influence sexual interactions

"When we teach someone to experience shame based on your body, whether it’s about race, body size, disability, and we internalize that shame, we internalize this sense of our body having less self-worth than other bodies.

“When we internalize a low self-worth and our body having less value, we might be less likely to experience pleasure within a sexual relationship or to ask for the type of touch we want and don’t want within a romantic relationship. Or to be able to even stop a sexual encounter when we want it to stop.”

When body-image abuse comes from a significant other

“If we haven’t received comprehensive sex education, we don’t know what our sexual rights are and what our rights to pleasure are, the kind of treatment we deserve. And oftentimes we, we tolerate body-image abuse from partners. I work with clients who are recovering from an experience with sexual assault and a partner will say, like: ‘I get you’re depressed, but like, it’s been a week since you’ve been in the gym. And if your body changes because of this, I’m not in this. I’m no longer going to be attracted to you. I’m going to dump you. I’m going to leave this relationship.’ It’s pressure to maintain a body size in order to maintain a relationship.”

Being an ‘Instagram therapist’

"It’s super-overwhelming sometimes because with so many followers on Instagram, it feels like there’s a pressure to produce content all the time. And I feel like I need to be putting out something new and super profound. Like no one’s ever heard of this concept, every day. But I don’t do that because that’s so overwhelming. A lot of folks will reach out into my DMs and ask really personal questions.

“It’s also really gratifying. So when I post really, really political and radical content where I’m talking about like being anti-cop, anti-U.S. government, anti-military folks are like, ‘Whoa, I’ve never heard these ideas before.’ ”

Her comments on the Christchurch shooter

“The language that I used in that talk that I gave was actually that I was not surprised that the person who shot up the mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, was also a fitness instructor. I was not surprised by that because people who are Nazis, people who are white supremacists, people who are trying to think of the perfect race are also super fatphobic. … Oftentimes it’s very eugenic.”

On pushing for better health access

"[An] almost universal collective fat traumatic experience is like going to the doctor, and how BMI and the body mass index scale is used universally to categorize and pathologize bodies based on fatness. One really important macro way that we would have to undo fatphobia would be to finally get rid of BMI, to not use it for insurance purposes. Because people who are of my BMI category and up are denied insurance coverage, are denied lifesaving procedures and medication, are denied gender affirmation surgery, are denied all kinds of things that we deserve access to — fertility treatments and IVF.

“That’s one really big macro way that I could think of. Because BMI has already been debunked.

The ‘fat’ word

“I always respect the language that people want to use. Even when I’m working with a client, I’ll ask. I’ll say, ‘I’m comfortable with using the word fat, but if there’s another word that you’d like to use, I’d be more than happy to use that.' And so sometimes, I have clients willing to use a word like fluffy, or curvy, or even plus-size. And that’s fine. I’m happy to use different language, but I will challenge and I will ask, What is it? Where are, like, the genetic memories attached to the charge of this word? Because the word itself doesn’t have to be emotionally charged. But there’s stuff there that we should explore together.”

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fat folks would love to rep your brand and support your work, but most artists and even small scale retailers do not provide sizing above a 1-2XL. this is an example of fatphobia. fat folks are not imagined as part of your target market. it’s a clear message to us fatties who you imagine wearing your designs. and if you’re considering passing along an increased fee to your fat customers bc your manufacturers charge more for the extra three inches of t-shirt fabric, this is called a fat tax. and it’s also an example of fatphobia . i wear a 3-4XL and rad brands like @fatlibink go at least to 9XL. but ash of @fatlippodcast reminds us that the MOST inclusive option is to offer custom sizing like @eshakti and to remember no matter what you THINK your target market looks like, fat folks exist in your target market . it’s not hard to be a fat person bc my body is fat. it’s hard to be a fat person bc fatphobia limits my ability to participate fully in society. bc i center my fat liberation politic around the most marginalized, i prioritize disabled and infinifat folks at the center of my conversations on fatphobia. using a disability justice lens is a great way to understand fat as an access issue. i really like this quote by the UK organization Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation bc they describe disability as something that society imposed on disabled bodies. this is how i illustrate fatphobia in my workshops too. in 1975 UPIAS said, "In our view it is society which disables physically impaired people. Disability is something imposed on top of our impairments by the way we are unnecessarily isolated and excluded from full participation in society.” . remember this when you’re creating campaigns that offer jewelry and clothing and things for the body to symbolize your campaign. fat and disabled folks need fat and disabled options in order to participate ☺️ anything less is exclusion and a clear message that fat and disabled folks are unwelcome

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