Dismantling patriarchal notions of ageism, calling out men for their entitlement & fostering a community of women on Instagram are but a few things that define Rakhi Bhatnagar‘s social media presence. She is unabashedly honest and does not shy away from tackling sensitive topics – her journey with breast cancer, for instance.
“You know how many brands will go out of business the day a woman realises she is perfect?” Rakhi Bhatnagar has had a long history with imperfect bodies. The very notion of heteronormative femininity hinges upon certain physical attributes like breasts. However, once you have breast cancer, breasts are no longer as necessary as you think.
Rakhi Bhatnagar had them removed to prevent a chance of relapse. She talks about breast cancer as an epiphany that opened her eyes to new experiences of femininity. Femininity did not feed the male gaze. Therefore, the affirmation “I can love myself the way I am” is deeply personal.
Rakhi Bhatnagar’s Instagram account, @heal_feel_surreal, speaks for itself as she talks about the joys and pains of womanhood. She has amassed more than a million views on her reels and was featured in major digital publications such as @womenweb.
On this National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we sat down with Rakhi to understand the impact of breast cancer as an intergenerational trauma. It has a far-reaching effect on more than just the patient’s life. She lost her mother to breast cancer. This left a scar, doubly so when she was diagnosed with it herself.
On the occasion of National Breast Cancer Awareness, Rakhi Bhatnagar gets candid with IcyTales about her journey and how society’s double standards affect women’s mental and physical health.
Q. Could you tell us something about your childhood in India?
Rakhi Bhatnagar: I was raised and brought up in Delhi, and all my education has been in Delhi. I come from a middle-class family. I lost my mother very early, but my parents always supported me. I would say in that age, and they were very modern.
In 2002, I decided to move to Canada. There were some compelling circumstances I don’t mind discussing at this point in my life. Everything that I went through, if I share, may help others. Social media is a good platform to reach out and spread awareness. That is the reason I am here with you today.
I moved to Canada because I had been trying to conceive for a long time. I had a lot of infertility issues, and nothing was working. So my husband and I saw that as an opportunity that maybe there’s better treatment. We moved here in 2002, and I went through some treatments. In 2004, I was blessed with a daughter.
Q. You moved from Delhi to Vancouver. What do you miss about home the most?
Rakhi Bhatnagar: I’m always Indian by heart and connected with my roots. I spent a good thirty years in Delhi. It’s another story that we had to move here because of some circumstances. How can I forget?
I can never forget my roots, and I always miss my hometown and country. Once my daughter was born, she was more comfortable here. She was born here, and I didn’t want to confuse her though I tried to give her as many values as possible.
Sometimes people think and say that “oh, you moved out of India”, and they judge me for missing my country. They do not understand that sometimes compelling circumstances can make people move from their home countries to different places.
Sometimes you do things not because you want to but for another reason. I’ve learnt that doesn’t judge anybody; you do not know their story. You do not know what has happened behind the scenes. You only know what they’re telling you.
Q. You have an entire series on your page dedicated to your journey as a cancer survivor. Talking about it must not have been easy. How important was it for you to empower others through your experience as a survivor?
Rakhi Bhatnagar: I was empowered by friends. Many women who followed me asked me to share my journey if I was comfortable. And I said yes, why not? Because sharing something might empower so many other women who are probably going through the same thing – not just cancer, they might be going through some other diseases or mental battles quietly and not yet ready to share or come out with it.
Talking about it has lifted so much weight from my heart. Because I was a woman born in the 70s in India. Today’s generation is way more progressive and way more open. Our generation, the 70s, 80s and even the 90s, come from an environment where talking about ‘breasts’ and ‘sex’ seems taboo. You’re not supposed to say this out loud.
People used to hesitate to talk to me about breast cancer. For a long time, even I was not verbal about it. People used to be very quiet while saying the word ‘breast’. I was like that, too, but it took me some time to realise that I did nothing wrong. It’s part of my body; it got infected, and I got it removed.
And now I’m healthy, and I’m living. So what is wrong with talking about it, and why are we not talking about it? Why am I not sharing what happened to me? Why did I keep it all inside me? It did bad things to me because it was all inside me. And talking about it did so much good.
I get DMs from women who have either recently been diagnosed or gone through it and never talked about it. They want to reach out and say they watched my video and series. That is so gratifying to hear. It gave them courage and reassurance. While talking about it, I think I was also healing myself more.
Q. Cancer takes a toll on both body and mind, yet we rarely discuss the mental impact on patient and their families. Could you elaborate more on that impact and how you found strength during such taxing times?
Rakhi Bhatnagar: I remember it was around Christmas when the news broke. Christmas is one of the biggest festivals in North America. This was like a nightmare that came to life. I saw my mum go through it. She, too, fought, but she lost the battle. And at that time, there were not that many facilities or treatments available that could give somebody peace when they were going through the last stages. She was in a lot of pain. I was with her every day for the previous 3-4 months of her life when she was battling breast cancer.
Going through that trauma – seeing your mother going through it, was not easy. She used to tell us, “You guys are selfish in keeping me alive. Give me poison. If you love me, give me poison and let me die. Why are you keeping me alive like this?”
Even today, when I relive those moments, I feel like running away to the Himalayas. I feel like I can’t handle this pain. I have a younger sister, and we used to meet the oncologists, and they told us that we needed to be careful because now we have a hereditary factor. “Because if your mother got it, you are in the high-risk category. So be very careful.”
When I learned I was positive for breast cancer, one cannot even imagine the mental trauma it put me in. Just the news that I have it, I got it. My daughter was young at the time. Then I thought and decided that since – I lost my mother, it has impacted me in such a way my whole life would not have been like this if I had a mother, and my daughter does not deserve this.
My mother was not very strong. The disease took over her because she was always crying. She could never come to terms with cancer – “what wrong did I do?” I felt I was not going down that road. I’m not going to crib about why I got it. I got it; shit happens. Now I’ve got to deal with it.
I had to make myself strong, especially for my daughter’s sake. My husband has been very supportive throughout my cancer journey. And let me tell you, having a supportive family is the biggest blessing you could have at such a time. With my daughter’s well-being, I gathered all my courage and decided that I had to fight, which had to get out of my body.
I think that positive energy does good things. Of course, there are treatments and medications. But very few people are talking about how positive energy can combat the toughest of diseases. If you can fight a war inside your brain, you can also battle it outside.
I was not in a very early stage. I was in the second stage – the middle set of cancer. I knew it was going to be tough. And I wasn’t sure what was going to happen next. But I knew I was going to give this cancer a good fight.
Q. You talk at length about the oppressive conditioning of women – how women are expected to adjust. How did you break free of that conditioning?
Rakhi Bhatnagar: I think I have cancer to thank for so many things. This made me realise how much I had been killing myself and prioritising everybody except myself. That is how we have been raised. Back in the 70s, women were raised to prioritise everyone but themselves. Women were seen as a tool to encourage, motivate or support the rest of the people in their lives. Nobody tells them, “Hey, if this is not making you happy, don’t do it.” We adjust in life. This is what we’re supposed to do.
When I got cancer and had a chance to introspect about my life through the lens of cancer, I saw what I had been doing. I was neglecting myself. Prioritising everyone else because that is the right thing to do. That is what we women do. And I thought, no, I don’t want to do this anymore. Maybe I won’t be the nice, ‘sanskaari’ (courteous) person anymore. But that’s fine. I’ll be selfish, but I want to be selfish and love myself. I want to put myself first.
Cancer woke me up. It’s a wake-up call – look after yourself. That whole experience told me that prioritising yourself is not selfish. I want to let everyone know that doing things for yourself is fine. Women in my era need to break free of these cages. These ‘sanskaari bahu’ (courteous daughter-in-law) and ‘achi ladki’ (nice girl) ideals. You need to rewrite the teachings that you have been taught by society. Assert yourself and tell yourself that you matter.
Q. You have built a community of over 24k people on Instagram alone. How has this community inspired you?
Rakhi Bhatnagar: When I first joined Instagram, I was surprised to see so many women of my era who had been breaking the barriers. They had been raising their voices. They were doing things they probably always wanted to do, and now they’ve got a platform.
There’s a whole community of saree vloggers. They are women from the 70s passionate about wearing sarees and the different weavers of sarees from India. They have made Instagram accounts, and I connected with all these women. I saw how passionate they were about these things, and they posted freely without hesitation.
On Instagram, everybody has a right to open, and not everybody gives you positive comments. They get some hate comments – we all do, honestly. There were some critical comments too, and I think we’re all aware of that. But that doesn’t stop anybody from still following their passions.
Some women are not very vocal. They DM me privately and try to share something that happened with them. Or something they’re battling – not cancer-related but related to day-to-day societal pressures. They want to come out in the open as I have, but they still have not gathered courage because ‘what will people say?’ It’s not easy. It takes time for women to break free from all these cages.
As October draws to a close, we are reminded of the end of the festivities. How women adorn themselves, how the simple pleasure of dressing up makes you feel fulfilled, and how the media profits from it. This conversation with Rakhi Bhatnagar stays with us as we browse through the glossy magazines, telling you how you can reset your body to the ideal size after the scrumptious Dussehra and Diwali festivities.
Imperfect bodies, then, as Rakhi Bhatnagar describes them, are a way to rebel and resist this misogynistic pressure that compels women to fit into body types that ultimately cater to the male gaze and desire. You can connect with Rakhi on her Instagram as she fights patriarchal stereotypes, one reel at a time.
Here, you can catch the whole conversation with Rakhi Bhatnagar on our YouTube channel.
Connect with Rakhi Bhatnagar here: