By Nancy Guo
Content warning: This story mentions disordered eating and body dysmorphia.
As a kid, writes Nancy Guo, I always thought my mum was just one of those health nut types who read dieting books for fun.
Sure, her catchphrase was telling me “肥死你” (féi sǐ nǐ), which roughly translates to “that will make you so fat, you’ll die” (Chinese insults often come in the form of a death threat) if I ever ate anything that was processed, calorically dense, or in a larger portion than she deemed appropriate.
Sure, during my huge growth spurt phase in Intermediate, she thought I was just being “greedy” and that there was no way that I was “really that hungry” despite scavenging the cupboards for dry ingredients, like sultanas and rolled oats, every day after school.
No, I didn’t particularly enjoy eating spoonfuls of desiccated coconut as a snack, but desperate times called for desperate measures, especially when you lived in a household where all processed and packaged food was strictly banned.
“Aren’t you glad that your mum can make any junk food way healthier and taste better?” she would ask my sister and me at the dinner table, after she served up one of her “innovations”.
Naturally, we would both nod obediently in agreement and gush about how it was impossible to tell the difference between Countdown’s muffins and hers, which were essentially baked blobs of dough stuffed with garden salad.
But what’s the harm in that? If anything, I felt proud to have a mum who really took her own health and the health of her kids seriously.
She wasn’t like other parents, who let their figures balloon after giving birth and “clogged up” their children with fatty food so that they were only one Happy Meal away from a heart attack.
Well, it turns out that as my prefrontal cortex developed, and I became less of a young and impressionable girl, I slowly started to realise that maybe my mum’s approach to food wasn’t normal.
And neither was mine.
With the “almond mom” trend on TikTok, it seems that Generation Z is beginning to collectively re-examine the ways our mums perpetuated perceptions of food that are ultimately rooted in diet culture and fatphobia.
Like many other people, when the clip of Yolanda Hadid telling her daughter Gigi Hadid to “have a couple of almonds and chew them really well” after she was on the verge of fainting went viral, it was startling to see how well the term “almond mom” perfectly encapsulated my mum’s obsession with healthy eating and portion control.
Although almond mums are hardly a novel phenomenon, the trend has provided Gen Z with a new framework to critically think about the behaviours our mothers modelled for us as kids, and how that continues to shape our relationship with food and our bodies.
The concept of almond mums has also been an empowering tool, helping to build a sense of solidarity amongst young people, who are also using their twenties to unpack and unlearn the conditioning we experienced in our childhood.
Ironically, for most of my adolescence, I was convinced that I had a happy and healthy relationship with food.
Writing now as a twenty-something, it’s clear that I was just living in a state of denial on most days.
My younger self believed that severely restricting my calories, cutting out entire food groups and over-exercising to “compensate” any moments of “weakness” was not only normal, but a testimony to my unwavering commitment towards leading an extremely clean diet.
I used to justify my militant adherence to playing the numbers game of calorie counting on the delusional basis that I needed to drop the weight I supposedly gained, from when I inevitably craved and went on a junk food binge.
Before my diet became a sad rotation of sweet potatoes, rice cakes and broccoli, I felt like I couldn’t control myself around processed food.
Unsurprisingly, when you grow up in a household where junk food is completely off-limits, it’s hard not to go berserk when you finally obtain access to it.
For me, this started when I finally had money of my own after picking up a paper run.
With an Eftpos card and $13 coming into my bank account every week, I could, for the first time, eat whatever my heart desired.
Since there wasn’t a cost of living crisis in 2014, you could easily score three bags of Doritos for $5 when there was a supermarket special.
But because I had internalised that processed snacks were like contraband, I didn’t know how to eat indulgent food like chips or cookies in moderate, normal amounts.
Instead, I was trapped in a relentless cycle of bingeing until I felt like I was going to burst and detesting myself for gorging on “bad” food before desperately trying to undo the damage by starving myself the next day, or going on frenzied two-hour runs to burn through the calories I had ingested.
Eventually, the yo-yoing between bingeing and restricting evolved into full-blown calorie slashing and tracking. And even though I was watching the numbers on the scale drop, it was never enough.
No matter how much weight, hair, or periods I lost, I still thought I looked “too big”.
Despite my knowledge of eating disorders and body dysmorphia at the time, I still wholeheartedly believed that following a strict diet was “necessary” and even healthy, rather than viewing my disordered eating for what it truly was: a way to gain some sense of control over my turbulent adolescence, a coping mechanism for my crippling self hatred and a product of the unhealthy perceptions of food I had absorbed through my upbringing.
During this time, my mum unintentionally encouraged and fuelled my destructive behaviour.
After all, which health nut mum wouldn’t be overjoyed that their daughter maintained a disciplined diet of fruit and vegetables, instead of being some lazy teenager who survived on greasy frozen pizza?
Consequently, there was a marked shift in our usually distant relationship.
We began to bond over our obsession with clean eating, and while walking off our dinner around the block in the evenings, we would engage in conversations that revolved around talking about how we just didn’t understand why people enjoyed fast food so much.
I began to emulate the same pride she took in watching and maintaining her slim figure.
When I hit my “goal weight” I couldn’t resist rubbing it in her face that I had finally lost enough kilograms where I actually weighed even less than her.
For reference, she’s a petite 5’3 woman and I was at least 5’7 at the time.
When we travelled back home to China to visit family later that year, my mum relished in our relatives’ comments about how “苗条“ (miáo tiáo）or “slender” I was.
This was a huge compliment in the context of China’s fatphobic beauty standards, which sets the golden weight for women as under 50 kilograms and created the A4 waist challenge, a social media trend that celebrated having a waist narrower than a vertical sheet of A4 paper.
Funnily enough, none of my extended family ever bothered to question why the token foreign cousin only filled her rice bowl a quarter of the way at dinner (my fear of carbs trumped the shame of committing a cultural cardinal sin) or weirdly wiped her food around on plates and tissues to dab off as much oil as possible.
Although I’m extremely thankful that food no longer dictates my life, it’s taken a hell of a long time to unlearn my old unhealthy eating habits and re-programme my perceptions of food.
While disordered eating is never monocausal, unpacking the beliefs and rules surrounding food that were modelled to me during childhood has been especially pivotal in understanding the “why” behind my food struggles, which I had previously written off as merely a “teenage girl” thing.
It hasn’t been an easy process.
In the beginning, I found it difficult to let go of the resentment I felt towards my mum, and myself, for developing a messed-up relationship with food and reconciling with how much time and energy my food fixation had taken away from my adolescence.
But what the almond mum trend and the process of healing old childhood wounds has demonstrated, is that our parents, just like ourselves, are only human.
Their harmful behaviours aren’t developed in a vacuum, but also influenced by unhealthy social norms and toxic beauty standards. The diet fads and weight loss craze of the ‘80s may seem ancient or long gone from our cultural landscape, but for our mums, that was what they were taught when they too were young and impressionable girls.
While nobody should ever feel obliged to simply forgive and forget - rather than just pointing the fingers at our almond mums, it’s more important to critique the culture that shaped their upbringing in order to break the cycle of passing unhelpful attitudes towards food to the next generation.
Equally, it’s also crucial to set healthy boundaries with almond mums.
It’s a continuous struggle to block our parents’ unhelpful comments and unsolicited health advice, but also the fatphobic messages propagated by broader society that still frame the ways we talk about food and body image.
But unlike our younger selves, we now have the cognitive tools to call out their unhelpful comments, while slowly repairing our complicated and messy relationships with food.
Because no matter how much Gwyneth Paltrow tries to paint having just bone broth for lunch as “wellness” or how much your keto manager rants about the dangers of white bread, nothing will make us feel more healthy, energised, and alive, than having food freedom.
Nancy Guo is a postgraduate Politics and International Relations student from Tāmaki Makaurau. As a passionate advocate for student journalism and media, she has been writing and editing for Craccum, The University of Auckland’s student magazine, since 2021.
Where to get help:
- 1737: The nationwide, 24/7 mental health support line. Call or text 1737 to speak to a trained counsellor.
- Youthline: Free call 0800 376 633, free text 234. Nationwide service focused on supporting young people.
- OUTLine NZ: Freephone 0800 OUTLINE (0800 688 5463). National service that helps LGBTIQ+ New Zealanders access support, information and a sense of community.
- EDANZ – improving outcomes for people with eating disorders and their families. Freephone 0800 2 EDANZ or 0800 233 269, or in Auckland 09 522 2679. Or email firstname.lastname@example.org
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