Last August we talked to Brittany Phillip about surviving Hurricane Katrina 10 years after the storm. Now for National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, we reached back out to the 28 year old who revealed how being teased about her weight led to bulimia as an adolescent, the role that growing up in New Orleans, a city known for its rich, heavy foods played in her battle, and the double standard of eating traditional southern food with family members who were petite. Despite the toll it took on her body over the years, Phillip was dedicated to the hours it took daily to not only be bulimic, but also hide it from friends and family. Eventually realizing that it could kill her, Phillip overcame bulimia, and found the tools to lose weight the right way, be healthy, and gain confidence. This is her story.
What was your view of women with eating disorders before you had yours?
I would hear about it, but I’d say to myself it’s a choice and not a real struggle. I didn’t think it was as serious as it is, and didn’t know you could get so wrapped up in it. When I heard someone say they were anorexic or bulimic in health class I’d think that person could make the choice to stop at any time. I didn’t take it serious as a disease or illness like it is.
How did bulimia start for you?
I was about 12 years old, my mom had just passed when I was 11, and my sister and I moved into a new subdivision with my aunt. I wanted to be on the dance team because I always cheered and danced growing up. I knew I was a chubby child, but I had never been teased or bullied about my weight. When I was trying out the captains over the team were making fun of me. They called me fat, said “She’s going to look so huge in the uniform,” and “we’re not going to be able to get crop tops because she has a big stomach.” That triggered it because I was made more conscious about my weight.
Before that I was a happy go lucky little kid. But I also started to notice jokes my family would make about what size I was wearing. I’m 5’2 now, and in middle school I was 4’8 and chubby. I didn’t know anything about losing weight, but I wanted to do something so one day I just ate, ate, ate, ate, then I threw it up. It became a repetitive thing. I’d indulge and overeat then throw it right back up by vomiting. I also was taking laxatives to get rid of food in my system.
When you threw up the food was it forced or mental?
In the beginning it was forced. I would just excuse myself and take a fork or pencil /pen with me to the bathroom. If I couldn’t get anything I’d put my fingers in my throat. It eventually became a habit that when I ate, immediately I’d feel the need to regurgitate.
If I say my stomach hurts now as an adult my friends and family would say “you’ve always had stomach problems,” because a lot of people don’t know I dealt with the issue.
Did you lose weight? How did your body change from the eating disorder?
Honestly, I was very disappointed because I thought I was going to be skinny. Nope. I lost a little weight, but it wasn’t what I wanted — I wanted to be skinny. That’s probably why my family never noticed what was going on. I did join the cheerleading team the following year so they figured the weight loss was from me being active.
The weight loss wasn’t drastic, and I was seriously devoted to this. That’s when I realized it wasn’t even doing what it was supposed to do.
How did you eventually stop?
My bulimia lasted from 7th grade until my sophomore year of college. But in my sophomore year in high school my sister got really sick to the point we thought she was going to pass away. I didn’t have the time to focus on my bulimia, but my body flipped the switch and instead of throwing up I turned to food to cope. I was overeating and not getting rid of it anymore.
Everyday after school I was going to see my sister at Children’s Hospital and the bathroom was in her room. I just couldn’t eat and then throw up right after.
I stopped then started back because I read this article about a bulimic girl who took laxatives before and after she ate. So my senior year of high school I started using laxatives until my sophomore year of college.
How did your body react to the laxatives compared to throwing up?
It was a better solution because when you throw up the stomach acid also comes up and eats away at your throat. My voice would be raspy and my throat was sore a lot. Even though the laxative forces your body to get rid of the food it didn’t hurt as much besides the cramping sensation.
I would keep milk of magnesia and Ex Lax. If I took too much to the point where I thought I wouldn’t be able to stop using the bathroom I also kept an anti-diarrhea medication too. It was a lot of work. Thinking about it now I wonder how did I have all that time.
How did you hide it from your family and friends?
I kept my Ex Lax on me in my purse or book bag, and always grabbed one before I left. It would be in a silver package that looked like a peppermint patty or thin mint. In college I had a drawer with all my medicine in it, and my anti-diarrhea pills would be at the bottom.
What made you stop throwing up and using laxatives?
Honestly, I didn’t see the results I had hoped for. I was becoming sickly, always catching a cold, and it was taking a toll on my body. The results were minimal, and I was unhappy. I was reading up on it, and my teacher was telling me about a girl who was bulimic and how the acid ate through her throat.
I was thinking, “You know what stupid, this is going to be you one day, how you dehydrated yourself because you weren’t drinking enough water and constantly getting rid of waste, and your body is going to shut down.” I kept reading more about it and it started to scare me because I didn’t want to die. I just wanted to be skinny. I never thought about it in all these years that I could actually die from this. It never dawned on me.
Did you ever feel shame as a Black woman with bulimia?
Very much so. I think now being a grown Black woman and knowing there’s some young Black girl out there who’s probably going through the same thing it makes it easier to be transparent about it. Before I acted like I never struggled with it, and would sit in the midst of conversation and turn my nose up to it, judging others when deep inside it was something I was dealing with. I didn’t know who to tell anymore because I was afraid I was going to be judged even harder because I wasn’t successful.
Every article I read for the most part was about White women, and I think that’s because in our community we’re so harsh sometimes. We don’t need to be ridiculed or further shamed when we’re already ashamed of ourselves because we’re already doing this for some kind of mental reasoning. Mine was body shaming- someone made me feel like I was really ugly and the only way I could be beautiful is to be a size two or four. If we were more open to embracing these different disorders, diseases, and mental issues it would be easier for people to come out and say they struggle with these things and seek help.
If you’re one of the lucky people that make it through it there comes a time when you go to talk to people to get help with the situation. My biggest thing was if I told my aunt I was going to get in trouble or get a whoopin’, that she was going to punish me. I felt like I couldn’t talk to anyone about it. I thought my sister was going to make fun of me and crack jokes. I didn’t want to tell my friends because I didn’t want to hear the “you’re smarter than this,” lecture. What I really wanted someone to say “let’s see how we can fix this, get you some help, and figure out how to lose weight the right way.” I didn’t get help with this until I was in my 20s.
How did people in your life respond once you started talking about your eating disorder?
Some of my friends said they kind of had a clue that it was going on. My sister wished I would’ve told her so I wouldn’t have had to go through it alone. She had her own weight struggle. When I talked to my aunt about it I wasn’t trying to make her feel bad, but we were having a heartfelt conversation and I wanted her to know that some of the jokes she made hurt me.
She’s like 125 pounds wet and petite, and would make me feel bad about my weight. For her, she was just being her and I needed to be content with it. When I told her years later [about how her comments hurt me] she was like “that was dumb” which was the reaction I expected. It was a slap in the face.
For a lot of other friends this will be their first time knowing about this, and we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.
Being from New Orleans, there’s a stereotype that it’s okay to be a big Black woman in the south. What are your thoughts as it relates to your bulimia?
My mom was a beautiful, dark-skinned, plus-size woman, and everyone said I looked just like her. It was a major shift in what I saw once she passed away, and I moved in with my aunt who is short and petite. She’d criticize fat people all the time, and it made me feel like I needed to live up to a different standard.
People love to talk about us being southern and loving to eat, but there are people who embrace that and others who don’t. I felt like I was dealing with a bunch of different things in my ear. Some people saying it okay to be big, love myself, and be beautiful. At the same time I had someone very close to me and other people in my ear telling me I needed to lose weight and I’m beautiful for a big girl. At the same time some of these people weren’t physically active or anything, but blessed with good genes. I didn’t grow up eating the healthiest things. Every Monday we had fried chicken with red beans and rice. The food is so heavy and rich, but at the end of the day you’re criticized for being plus size.
My sister was going through her own weight issues, plus we would be reminded that our mother died from a heart attack. At the end of the day we were still fed a three-piece dark meal from Popeyes.
How did you get to a healthy place of losing weight?
It was really hard. My relationship with food changed into a way I coped. I just ate, ate, ate, ate, and then woke up one day weighing 352 lbs. It was all about changing my eating habits, being dedicated, and disciplined. I didn’t gain weight overnight, and every eating disorder is still a process.
I do one diet called the 15/5 diet. I have a trainer now that tells me what I can’t do and I figure out what I can do. I take vitamins daily, and realized fast food is not my friend. I don’t have it down to a science, but food prep helps. I stopped drinking soda which has about two days worth of sugar in it.
I realized just as much as I control the eating disorder I control my eating, exercising, and everything else. If you have three hours to devote to messy Monday you could’ve taken one of those hours to walk or lift some weights. It gets frustrating when you don’t always see the pounds going down, but with patience and dedication it works. My goal now isn’t to be skinny but healthy.
How much weight have you lost?
Sixty five pounds, maybe 70. I started in May 2015. I have a group of people that hold me accountable and apps. I also go to therapy, it helps to be in a better mental space to achieve your goals. That was a major breakthrough for me to admit I go and talk to someone to help me think clearly, make sound decisions, and become a better Brittany everyday.