Heather O’Neill on Women’s Relationship with Food: Episode 10 of The Deep Dive

Have you ever noticed that there are an inordinate amount of sweets in films directed by women? Writer Heather O’Neill has. She decided to explore why we have a fixation on sweet treats

A photo of Heather O'Neill with a blue and purple border. In the upper left corner, it says "The Deep Dive" in white lettering. In the bottom right corner, there are The Walrus tusks in white.

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The music for this episode is a licensed version of “This Podcast Theme” by InPlus Music. Additional music are licensed versions of “Stay Cool” by Loops Lab, “Podcast Intro” by InPlus Music, “Skydancer” by Scandinavianz, “Private Reflection” by Kevin MacLeod, and “Protofunk” by Kevin MacLeod.



SHEENA ROSSITER: Welcome to Deep Dive, a weekly podcast that takes a deeper look into the happenings at The Walrus.

I’m Sheena Rossiter.

ANGELA MISRI: And I’m Angela Misri.

On this week’s episode.

HEATHER O’NEILL: Marie Antoinette was famous for the phrase, “Let them eat cake.” In the movie, there’s just so much cake eating going on. The women are dressed like the cake and they seem somehow consumable. And you’re watching Marie Antoinette just devour all these delicious cakes, knowing that in the end, she is the one who’s going to be consumed as this beautiful cake, by the people of France, who are going to just eat her up in a way.

ANGELA MISRI: Have you ever noticed that there are an inordinate amount of sweets in films directed by women? Writer Heather O’Neill has. And she decided to delve into the world of women feasting and to explore why we have a fixation on sweet treats.

SHEENA ROSSITER: In her latest essay for The Walrus, “Let Her Eat Cake: The Subversive Power of Women Feasting,” through a series of vignettes, Heather looks at women’s relationship with food through explanations of popular films. And she weaves in personal stories about how food has helped define moments of her own life.

ANGELA MISRI: Heather O’Neill is an award winning novelist and essayist. Her works include Lullabies for Little Criminals and The Lonely Hearts Hotel. Her most recent novel is When We Lost Our Heads.

Now let’s check out your interview with Heather O’Neill.

SHEENA ROSSITER: So in a recent essay for The Walrus, you’re looking at women feasting in particular. Can you tell us a little bit more about the essay, and what sparked the idea for this piece?

HEATHER O’NEILL: I happened to, one night, it was late at night, and I rewatched this film, Daisies. This Czech new wave film that I had seen when I was younger. The two characters, they just eat the whole film, and there’s this celebratory aspect to their friendship. And everywhere they go, they’re just eating off people’s plates. And it just outrages everyone around them, and they seem so uncontrollable because of this desire to eat.

And I just started thinking about the way that women directors encounter food, and the sort of ravenous and taboo way they describe, especially, sweets and cake. Whenever there’s a cake in a woman’s film, there’s such an aura of attention around it, because, will she eat it? And every time she eats it, she’s almost punished for her behaviour, because it’s so outside the norms of femininity to just be taking this moment for herself and devouring some food.

And it started making me reflect on my own life, and how I’ve always had such a strange, contentious relationship, particularly to cake and sweets, and just being able to eat. And, when I think I have the right to eat and all these different societal, systemic things that are put into your head, since you’re a little girl, how you should avoid food, I should watch out for food, food will destroy you, and somehow make you into some sort of monster that men won’t love. So I was just fascinated by that, and how I came to be at peace with cake myself.

SHEENA ROSSITER: The essay is basically a compilation of vignettes, and it weaves between these vignettes that describes both references to pop culture of women feasting, and your own personal life. Can you tell us about which moments you decide to focus on in your personal life, and why you decided to focus particularly on certain moments in certain pop culture references as well?

HEATHER O’NEILL: I sort of started talking about Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. Marie Antoinette was famous for the phrase, “Let them eat cake.”

AUDIO CLIP (FROM MARIE ANTOINETTE): But when they went to the queen, you tell her, “Your subjects have no bread.” Do you know what she said? Let them eat cake.

HEATHER O’NEILL: In the movie, there’s just so much cake eating going on. The women are dressed like the cake, and they seem somehow consumable. And you’re watching Marie Antoinette just devour all these delicious cakes, knowing that in the end, she is the one who’s going to be consumed as this beautiful cake, by the people of France, who are going to just eat her up in a way. So that’s why I kind of started with that one, because it was such a historical shaming of a woman, by associating her with this delicacy.

I started my own kind of personal journey in this piece, by talking about when I was a teenager. I had such a terrible relationship with food. I refused to eat. I stopped eating around, I think I was 15 years old. It started a bit when I was 14. By the time I was 15, I couldn’t live at home anymore. The situation was just too abusive, and it was chronic abuse and I would always have to leave. And then I would just get arrested and brought back home for running away.

I stopped eating, and part of it was I didn’t want to eat anything from the house. I didn’t want to feel like I belonged to that family and somehow wanted to not be dependent on that home life. And, when I look back on it now, it seems like such a cry for help. Also, it was some sort of control over my body, and then I wanted people to notice, because at one point, they finally did. When I was in gym class, I ended up fainting during a volleyball match, and I was brought into the nurse and they sent me to see psychiatrists. But, it never really worked, because I couldn’t communicate that I was being abused, but this was the form in which I was communicating it. And then when people eventually asked what was wrong, I couldn’t articulate it and I couldn’t say it. I just wanted them to know, so I was living it through my body. I wanted some physical proof, or that I was dying somehow, that this was actually killing me to have to be subjected to this all the time.

And then it just took me a long time to start eating again. And I didn’t start eating again really until I left home and went to university. That launched into a new episode of eating. Because it was just funny to me how I ate so differently in different circumstances. And, when I left home for college, I was living on my own. When you kind of live in a strict, repressive and abusive household, when you get out, you’re just like a wild animal. The freedom of it was so… It just went to my head and I was up all night. I just did everything I wasn’t supposed to do. I was like a three year old who had been given the keys to some eternal sleepover party. So, I would literally simply eat dessert all the time, as a sort of celebration. I was somehow, I could not stop celebrating the fact that I had somehow escaped my house.

SHEENA ROSSITER: When you found yourself in that situation at home, was it partly the repression of the abuse that was happening at home, but was it in combination with what you were seeing in pop culture.

AUDIO CLIP (FROM ABC NEWS): Heroin chic was a term that described what you were seeing a lot in fashion advertising. Models who were very, very thin. It wasn’t a look of health and happiness.

SHEENA ROSSITER: Having grown up in the ’90s where we were used to seeing Kate Moss plastered on everything and just kind of waify models?

HEATHER O’NEILL: Oh, absolutely. I was so into, and I still am. I always had that interest in fashion, and I would just take any fashion magazine from the garbage I would root through, because I just adored looking at them. The model model at the time was a very emaciated looking woman, who looked as though something terrible had happened to her, as though she was suffering from sort of drug addiction. And their hair always looked wet. They just basically looked like they were corpses dragged from the river. There was just a celebration of this type of body, so I felt, in many ways, that at least all I had was being skinny, that this would somehow be rewarded.

There’s also this idea constantly, when you’re a young girl, that there’s some great reward for being beautiful, some great reward to being skinny, which absolutely doesn’t exist. So you’re supposed to spend your entire life, so that you look attractive to random males. It’s such a perversion of possibility and opportunity in life, to focus on your body and to obtain one of those ’90s bodies. You really had to be in a constant state of hunger. There was no way. They were so thin.

In a way, people around me, like friends and stuff, were always complimenting me for being skinny. There was nobody in my entourage with other children who thought there was anything wrong with being skinny and they were like, “Oh, maybe it’s unhealthy, and she’s fainting. But she looks great. She looks like one of those crazy New York models,” who also, when you looked around, everybody on the giant posters were completely thin, and they embodied this very unobtainable, it’s a very racist ideal of a body, because it’s so particularly white, and so many other types of women can’t fit into that.

So it was this tiny body that most women could not fit into. And if you came from a different background, different country, or you had any breasts or an ass, these amazing attributes that women have, you could not fit into this body. So, it was this tiny little mould nobody could fit into.

SHEENA ROSSITER: We’ll be right back.

BRETT POPPLEWELL: How do you deter someone with laws that they don’t think exist? I’m Brett Popplewell, and that question lingered with me after a national security expert gave me her analysis of what she saw going on in Ottawa last month. I spent much of the occupation reporting on a singular story for The Walrus, that I hoped would make sense of what was actually on the street after it was gone. In the course of putting my story together, I spoke to protestors and residents, went in and out of what the police had called the “red zone” multiple times, and spent a lot of time on the phone. The story was fact-checked by what I believe is the best team of fact-checkers in the country. It took them time to verify every word. And you can support their work, and mine, by subscribing to The Walrus at thewalrus.ca/subscribe.

SHEENA ROSSITER: We seem to be at a very different time right now in history, where we’re part of this body positivity movement, where people are celebrating fuller figured women. Do you feel that that has kind of the pendulum has shifted and gone the opposite direction of what it was 30 years ago in the ’90s?

HEATHER O’NEILL: It’s definitely improved, and I think a lot of that had to come with, there’s been so much more diversity in culture and different types of bodies, and the idea that beauty comes in so many different forms and shapes has been really accepted by a lot of people. So, I don’t know though, because I was talking to my daughter, because she’s in her twenties, so I asked her about that, and she had an interesting observation. She said, “We’ve become very good at accepting other women’s bodies, but we still have trouble accepting our own.”

For me, it’s always just the over-emphasis on a young woman’s physical appearance, and it’s somehow to just be a facade and you don’t have any part of your inner self coming out, or when people meet you or form some sort of estimation of you, it’s purely based on physical appearance instead of inner beauty. We were all in the female gaze. What we like in other women is humour, that sparkle in the eye, a certain physicality. I always love when women move in a certain way. But when we’re in the male gaze, we’re just locked in this odd objective role again. So I think beauty just needs to be more subjective.

Because even as an ageing woman, ageing, whatever, I still feel super young, but, I’ve noticed that now that I’m in my late forties, there’s so much pressure about looking good. It’s just been lifted. You just don’t care. And when they said… When I was younger, everyone said, “Once you turn 40, you become invisible.” And it’s not that you become invisible, it’s that other parts of you people pay attention to. And if you haven’t developed them, then yeah, maybe you would be invisible. But it’s such a gift not to constantly somehow be worried about the male gaze, and then you think instead what people think about what you say.

And then, if I could go back in time, I would just tell that to my younger self. It’s like, “It doesn’t matter how people think you look. That’s so irrelevant. There are very few gifts from it. Actually, what it does is repress you. So, focus more on what people hear you saying or what you produce in the world, and that leads to all sorts of interesting ways of activities. The whole spending time on your physical appearance, it’s just a waste of time.”

SHEENA ROSSITER: One part of your essay that really stood out to me was the part where you were talking about when you became a young mother, and how food impacted you in a certain way. And it was almost the opposite of feasting, that you mentioned that you were struggling to put food on the table and you were going hungry. Why was it important for you to put that contrast into your piece?

HEATHER O’NEILL: I think at that moment in my life, eating at food banks was so emblematic of where I was at the moment. It was also a reckoning for me, because I had always assumed, once I got out of home, everything would be just this days of wine and roses. But then I realized I was perpetuating the cycle of poverty. I had had a baby when I was 20, with someone who had a very severe drug addiction. And then I was like, ugh, I have created this situation that is almost completely trapping me in the environment I grew up in, and I have done this somehow to myself. I need to really think about where I came from and what leads people to be stuck in a situation, and how it is that one breaks through this cycle of poverty.

And so the whole time I was doing that was in this [milieu 00:14:57] of constantly going to different food banks. They have these little restaurants where you pay a $1.50 and get a meal. So that was where I was kind of growing my political sensibility, just around people who were older also, who had just spent their whole lives in there and had created situations for themselves that they couldn’t get out of, while I was eating there. But it’s community too within itself. And, I was like, “I’m feasting with this world, but I intend to leave it.” Just because I wanted more. I wanted the cake. I thought I deserved it at this point. I was like, “I just deserve to have my cake.”

SHEENA ROSSITER: Food has defined certain moments of your life. Can you kind of take us into a moment where you felt like you did get that cake?

HEATHER O’NEILL: All the things I realized too, when I was reflecting on the essay, there’s no actual stories of cooking or making food, because I never have. I just never cook. I always just order out. And even my daughter, even when she was little, she was always scrambling around for food and she’d be like, “I’m going over to Elsa’s house. Her mom always has food out,” and she would just go out. And she had all these ways of hooking herself up with meals, because there was just not a lot of cooking going on at home.

Then after my dad had passed away, there became this question of, what on Earth do we do for Christmas dinner? Do we bother even celebrating? Or we just go down to the buffet? But then Arizona became very fixated that she wanted to have this giant meal at the house. And then we had no family to invite, so she just started inviting little riff raff. And then people started approaching her, where she was working downtown. They’re like, “Hey, I hear you’re taking in stragglers for Christmas dinner. I have nowhere to go. Can I come?” So we ended up having this table with all mixed matched plates. Because Arizona’s friends are mostly young, they all thought to bring dessert. So everybody arrived with these cakes. So then, we had a dinner and then all these cakes were passed out, and we had cake for days.

There was just something very wonderful about it. And it was like, “Oh, we finally have somehow come together in the world, where we can have a family dinner and people can come to my house and celebrate.” Because when I was young, I never invited anybody over. It was just too crazy. I couldn’t possibly. It would be too shocking. My dad was a hoarder, and he was always screaming. And of course, if I had a friend over, he would deliberately humiliate me, because, abusive parents, they always want to keep their child to themselves and not have any friends, so I could never have anybody over. So the fact that all these people were coming over to my house and really enjoying, it was like, “Oh, I’ve created this world where now we can all eat together.”

SHEENA ROSSITER: Your essay as a whole, how does it kind of reflect on what food means to women’s lives?

HEATHER O’NEILL: We’re always associated with food. We’re associated with providing the food, and food being edible, ourselves being edible, somehow consumable. We’re there actually to please other people and for them to consume, as opposed to just living our own lives. So I think what I was doing was looking at food, but in different frames and different references than we usually see food. We usually see women doing it in this sort of traditional way. I just wanted to point out the ways and from different backgrounds, you encounter food, how food changes when you’re going through hardships and when you’re feeling better.

Yeah. It’s just such a complicated relationship, and we don’t actually explore how women eat and get food. Particularly when they’re single, it’s always in the context of a family. There’s always something sort of looked down upon with women who just grab food and eat it over the sink, which is what I do. And I love going out to restaurants or eating on the sidewalk. Because for me, I think always eating is just a communal thing, but I never had a close family. My favourite thing is to have Chinese takeout and just eat it on a bench in the summer, with people passing by and saying things. And it’s just wonderful now just to be able to eat and not be constantly self-conscious about it.

SHEENA ROSSITER: Now, let’s check out what Heather O’Neill is reading right now.

HEATHER O’NEILL: Lately, I’ve been discovering the works of Tove Ditlevsen, who was a hugely acclaimed Danish writer, recently being rediscovered and retranslated in English, and I just adore her writing. It’s just about the inner workings, and she’s very good at writing about the dirty, less savoury aspects of being a woman. But she does it with such bluntness and wonderment. I mean, I read all her memoirs. They were incredibly beautiful and such a fascinating look at addiction. And, I read Faces, and she just talks about how people wear different faces. The level of the prose is just extraordinary.

I also read a book by a Montrealer, Tawhida Tanya Evanson, called Book of Wings, a story of a woman travelling through Northern Africa. I find it’s like a Rachel Cusk, but with these different sensibilities, because Tawhida is Antiguan-Canadian, so it’s just so fascinating to read a work of autofiction, that’s done from a different culture. While I was reading it, I realised just the extent to which autofiction is white so many times, and then so the reference, it just kind of exploded the genre a bit for me.

SHEENA ROSSITER: That’s my conversation with Heather O’Neill. Daniel Viola is the editor for her story. You can read her essay, “Let Her Eat Cake: The Subversive Power of Women Feasting,” now at thewalrus.ca.


EMMA MACKENZIE HILLIER: I’m Emma Mackenzie Hillier, and here’s what we’ve been talking about this week at The Walrus.

We were all clapping emojis on Slack this week when Nicholas-Hune Brown won the Canadian Hillman Prize for journalism for his cover story article “The Shadowy Business of International Education.” The story explores the business of luring international students to Canada from countries like India with the false promise that higher education will lead directly to immigration.

Emily Baron Cadloff put her camera where her words are – or something like that – posting a new TikTok video to our account at The Walrus about her latest piece for us – that looks at the rise of mental health videos on TikTok. Have you diagnosed yourself through TikTok? You should read her story.

And speaking of mental health, our digital Wellness Series continues to drive conversation all over social media, including with our latest piece about why Canadians are so Bad at Taking Time Off.

As always, the links for all these articles can be found in the show notes for this episode.


SHEENA ROSSITER: Thanks for joining us on this week’s episode of the Deep Dive. It was produced by Angela Misri, and me, Sheena Rossiter. I also edited this episode.

Thanks so much to Heather O’Neill for joining us this week.

Music for this podcast is provided by Audio Jungle. Our theme song is This Podcast Theme by Inplus Music. Additional music is Stay Cool by Loops Lab, and Podcast Intro by Inplus Music. You also heard “Skydancer” by Scandinavianz, “Dark Eyes” by Teddy and Marge provided by the Free Music Archive. And “Private Reflection” and “Protofunk” by Kevin MacLeod from Film Music.

Private Reflection by Kevin MacLeod
Link: https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/4241-private-reflection
License: https://filmmusic.io/standard-license

Protofunk by Kevin MacLeod
Link: https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/4247-protofunk
License: https://filmmusic.io/standard-license

Additional sources for this episode were provided by, Fellinious, Masguita, and ABC News on YouTube.

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Until next week when we take our next deep dive.

The Walrus Staff