As a kid, I always thought my mother was just one of those health nut types who read dieting books for fun.
Sure, her catchphrase was telling me “肥死你“, which roughly translates to “that will make you so fat you’ll die,” (Chinese insults are nearly always some form of 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, everyday after school. No, I didn’t particularly enjoy eating spoonfuls of desiccated coconut as a snack. But desperate times called for desperate measures 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 us at the dinner table, after she served up one of her “innovations”. Naturally, my sister and I would 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 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 and sugary food so that they were 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 child, I slowly started to realise that yeah, my mum’s approach to food was definitely not normal, and neither was mine. And with the emergence of the “almond mom” trend on Tik Tok, it seems that our generation is beginning to collectively re-examine the ways our mums perpetuated perceptions and behaviours rooted in diet culture and fatphobia.
Like many others, when that 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, I found it startling that the term “almond mom” perfectly encapsulated my mum’s obsession with healthy eating and portion control. I guess you could say: my name is Bella Hadid.
Although almond mums are hardly a new phenomenon, the trend provides us a 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. It’s also empowering to feel a sense of solidarity among other 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 genuinely convinced that I had a happy and healthy relationship with food. To put it bluntly, on most days, I lived in a state of denial. I 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 also justified my militant adherence to playing the numbers game of calorie counting on the delusion that I needed to drop weight as I had become blown up from junk food binges.
Before my diet became a 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, you kinda go berserk when you finally obtain access to it. For me, this started when I finally had money of my own through getting 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. It also didn’t help that there wasn’t a cost of living crisis in 2014, so you could easily score three bags of Doritos for five bucks when there was a supermarket special. But because my mum treated processed snacks like they were contraband, I didn’t know how to eat chips or cookies in moderate, normal amounts. Instead, I was trapped in a cycle of bingeing until I was going to burst, 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. 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, I genuinely believed I needed to be on a strict diet at all times, instead of viewing my disordered eating for what it truly was: a way to gain some sense of control over my life, a coping mechanism for my crippling self hatred and a product of the unhealthy perceptions of food imposed onto me by my almond mum.
Unsurprisingly, she unintentionally encouraged and fuelled my toxic behaviour during this time. After all, which “health nut” mum wouldn’t be overjoyed that their daughter maintained a disciplined diet of fruit and vegetables, instead of being a lazy teenager who survived on greasy frozen pizza? There was a marked shift in our usually distant relationship. We began to bond over our obsession with clean eating and how we just didn’t understand why people enjoyed fast food so much, while walking off our dinner around the block in the evenings.
Even 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 pounds that I now 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, my mum relished in our relative’s comments about how “苗条“ or “slender” I was, a huge compliment in the context of China’s fatphobic beauty standards. Funnily enough, none of my extended family ever bothered to question why the foreign cousin only filled her rice bowl a quarter of the way (I was more scared of carbs than committing a cardinal sin), or 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 now, 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 especially been pivotal in understanding the “why” behind my food struggles, which I had previously written off as merely a “teenage girl thing.”
Yet, it hasn’t been easy. When I first came to the realisation that my mum’s mentality towards food was not normal or healthy, my initial reaction was resentment. I was bitter. She was the one who messed up my relationship with food. Imagine how much better my adolescence could have been if I didn’t have a nutcase for a mother.
But what the almond mum trend and the process of healing childhood wounds demonstrates is that our parents are only human. Their harmful behaviours aren’t developed in a vacuum, but also influenced by toxic social norms and beauty standards. The diet fads and weight loss craze of the eighties may seem ancient or long gone from our cultural landscape, but for our mothers, that was what they were taught when they too were young and impressionable girls.
While nobody should ever feel obliged to forgive and forget, rather than just pointing the fingers at our almond mums, it’s more important to critique the society that shaped their upbringing in order to break the cycle of passing toxic attitudes towards food to the next generation.
Equally, it’s also crucial to set healthy boundaries with almond mums. Even to this day, it’s a continuous struggle to block out not just her snarky comments and unsolicited health advice, but also the fatphobic messages that still frame the ways society talks about food and body image. Unlike our younger selves, we now have the cognitive tools to call them out on their unhelpful comments, while slowly repairing our complicated and messy relationships with food.
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 you feel more healthy, energised, and alive, than having food freedom.