I came across the fat sex therapist on Jameela Jamil’s Instagram page a couple of months back. Instantly curious, I began lurking. Sonalee Rashatwar is a US based award-winning social worker, sex therapist, adjunct lecturer and grassroots organizer with qualifiactions coming out of her ears. She’s a fat, queer, non-binary therapist working as a sexual violence crisis counselor, at least that’s what her website tells me so. As I wrote that I felt a pang of unease. It feels wrong to lead a description of someone with ‘fat’. But this is the precise mission of @thefatsextherapist.

I want fat to be reclaimed. I want fat to become a non judgmental descriptor of someone’s body. I don’t like to use words like overweight because, like what weight is it over?. There’s this assumption of a normal, a standard of sorts, and I don’t think using a word that asserts a normal is necessarily working for folks who exist outside that.

With intellect and eloquence so refined, it’s hard to argue. Staunch in conviction, the message is clear. She wants to end fatphobia and she wants to end it now. And fatphobia is a real thing. Those looks of disdain when a fat person takes up more space on an aeroplane. The preconceptions in an interview that they are lazier than their skinny counterparts. That they have no control when they order a large meal – all fatphobia. Sonelee controversially posted that ‘avoiding eye contact with a fat person is a form of fatphobia’, but in her experience this rings true. She sees people making eye contact with her skinny friends all the time, “when they meet my eye, I’m met with a look of disdain, a lack of smile. It’s like I’m not even a person. Like i’m not worthy of acknowledgement. To me that’s what it feels like. I’m invisibilized by my fatness.”

Growing up in a South Asian family meant there was always a huge emphasis put on weight. If she could be thinner, she could attract a man, get married and have a baby, “It was a rigid form of social control. If I become too fat, the rest of these steps wouldn’t happen. I had to ask myself do I even want those steps to happen? At 13 I was thinking if I get married that’s a form of societal success I can check off. How wrong is that?”. And this isn’t limited to Asain families but anywhere a family believes in the need for authoritative parenting. By not giving kids the freedom to “make mistakes and come back to a safe nest” you set them on a path that has them striving for you. What you want.

What you need. Parents are enforcing non consensual diets on kids and it’s not right. If a child grows up with all these ideals of not enjoying food or having to be thin you’re setting them up to have an unhealthy relationship with food leaving them more susceptible to the influence of diet culture.

But what informs ‘diet culture’?

Right now the assumption that everyone is trying to take up less space, that everyone is working to become smaller in their bodies. It’s a cyclical shift, the macro nutrients that get demonised – in the 90’s it was fats, everything was low fat. Then it was protein, with Dr. Atkin’s. In the early 00’s it was carbs, and this decade it’s sugar. Diet culture morphs and changes, it doesn’t ever go away. It just changes its language, becomes more covert. Nowadays it looks like the wellness diet. We assume clean eating will be coupled with weight loss. Clean eating is no different from slim fast in it’s message.

And she’s got a point. There’s always something, a nagging feeling that I shouldn’t be eating this, shouldn’t be enjoying this. We’ve become so used to the language of food in our every day that we don’t even notice the guilt we are saddled with. 

But what can we do individually to stop this? We can start by challenging the assumptions of people, the subliminal messages that have become so commonplace. “You can question when someone says ‘today is my cheat day’ or ‘the diet starts tomorrow’. Or when someone goes vegan, their purpose being ‘just because’, I’d challenge that. Often going vegetarian, going vegan, eliminating gluten or ridding food for non medical reasons is perpetuating the cultural norm.” Start to challenge these norms from a macro level and then real change can start. 

And as she continues I can’t help but see some pennies drop. Our ideals, our norms are mostly out of our control. Culturally shaped and societally perpetuated over and over before our very eyes. But where did it all start and why is the obsession with body ideals so prevalent? 

Capitalism decides which bodies are desirable based on the ability to create profit. It creates a hierarchy of how it values bodies. And that spills into our cultural psyche.” Sexual desirability too is a conversation happening right now with it affecting how we are treated in a whole host of scenarios from the workplace to relationships to family. “It impacts everything we do. People will say I’m just not into fat people. But it’s not an issue of biology, it’s an issue of sociocultural influence. Beauty ideals change all the time. From thin to toned. And now to toned but with fat on your boobs and butt. Unattainable beauty ideals don’t go away. They just shape shift.

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teasing is an often overlooked form of emotional abuse. you can enjoy name calling in bed, but non consensual public humiliation and hurtful comments about the way you look or feel about your fat body are unacceptable. the mindset it takes to tease someone about their fat body is rooted in fatphobia, ableism, and thin idealism (which is often communicated using healthism or nutritionism) . you can enjoy playful teasing or sarcasm as a way to show affection or humor, but if it's hurtful to you, then that’s all that matters. we all have different tolerances for teasing and that comes directly from our experiences with teasing, especially in childhood. if you were a kid who was bullied for being fat or ‘not smart’ you might be more sensitive to that in adulthood. and you’re not weak bc you “can’t take it.” if the teasing is kicking up old thought patterns that make you feel negatively and overly critical about yourself, it’s a good sign you’ve got some traumatic childhood experiences here . healthism is the assumption that everyone should be aspiring to have the best health possible, dedicating their precious resources to this mission, and this health aspiration makes them morally better people. the thin ideal makes us falsely conflate thinness and health here too. nutritionism is the idea that scientifically identified nutrients in food determine the whole moral (good/bad) value of the food. both of these paradigms combined often result in the fatphobia we experience when someone hurts or degrades us . it is fatphobic to assume fat people don’t care about our health. it’s also fatphobic to assume fat folks should be constantly worried and working on their health. make sure you don’t fall into these common fatphobia traps!

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But now feels like a moment. Like something is shifting, change is coming. And Sonalee is at the helm of it. She’s trying to make her mark by building empathy. She’s using her personal narrative to describe what it feels like to experience some of this stuff in the hope of offering a valid narrative, one that’s often forgotten. “Fat people are assumed to be at fault for their condition and are forced to develop complex ways to compensate for the fatphobia they experience.I hope to move people emotionally with the depth of a story, the depth of their pain in order to shift their consciousness.” 

But body liberation is so much bigger than the conversations happening on body positivity right now and Sonelee is very much for grassroots movement as the mode of change. In this way knowledge reaches people on the ground. Those on the ground can take it and do something with it. That’s where change happens. The Fat Sex Therapist, alongside a host of emerging Instagrammers, activists and change makers are fuelling this movement. Some of her favourites include @leahlakshmiwrites @chairbreaker and @adriennemareebrown 

And while none of what she’s saying is new, the way she’s reaching people is. She’s bold, she’s brave and her message is whispering to all the change makers out there. Just try not to consider her message. We dare you.