The Country And Western Star
Music has taken Cynthia French-Blanchard all over the world. She has sung on the American country classic, Grand Ole Opry, provided background vocals on a large number of albums for artists, including Reba McEntire’s album, If You See Him, which stormed the charts, plus she founded and runs a successful music publishing company.
Cynthia lives a charmed life, singing, working and travelling with her (rather dashing) husband all over the US. But it wasn’t always so magical. As a teen, Cynthia struggled with anorexia, and then, while her singing career blossomed she secretly battled bulimia. Bulimia is not a fun travelling companion. After years of hiding she eventually came out the other side of it and penned a book, Humanville, a fable about a young girl’s struggle with an eating disorder which has touched, and entertained, many a young heart.
Aside from having a fabulous voice, Cynthia is also warm, witty and generous. Here is our chat.
BB: You said your troubles began at eight, with overeating. Can you tell me about that?
CF: My father worked for an oil company so my family moved around a lot. We moved to another state when I was 8 years old. It was hard. My Mom always had a weird body image and thought she was fat and it really transferred onto me. I really wanted to please her, be perfect for her and I never felt enough. And because I was lonely, and alone, that was the first time I experienced overeating; not having balance in my life. Then we moved back to Oklahoma after middle school, and again, I ate a lot because I was the new girl. Lonely. But then I started playing sports and it was the first time I had ever exercised a lot and it was so empowering. It was great. I’m probably like you, an A type personality, competitive, ambitious and whenever that personality gets into something, we go full on. Even dieting—it’s bad. But I felt great. At 15 I developed anorexia. That was my life for the next seven years. It was a very lonely existence because I isolated myself emotionally and was afraid of intimacy. I had an outgoing personality, so was well liked and popular, but inside I knew I wasn’t fooling everybody. Even though I had an anorexic mindset—a deep emptiness within me—I made up for it and felt powerful because I’d conquered the body, the enemy. I was winning a war most people lost: I was thin. The more I didn’t let my body tell me what it needed, the better I was than everyone else. I was more disciplined and perfect than they were. Absolutely crazy.
BB. Isn’t it crazy? As women we get such amazing feedback for being good and thin. How long did it take for bulimia to become a daily habit?
CF: When I first started I was 22. It was my senior year in college and I was running like crazy and then I had an injury. I couldn’t exercise, started eating and gaining weight. My body hadn’t been getting any nourishment for all those anorexic years and had just had enough. I ate and ate and gained thirty-five pounds and panicked every second. I just couldn’t stop! My body was so excited about getting food, it just took over. My metabolism was also pretty screwed up at this time, so nothing was working right, really. I did it three times in a month and I thought oh my gosh, that is so disgusting. It crept up on me as I was trying to control my weight gain after my anorexic experience. I really didn’t think I’d become addicted because it seemed manageable to me, utilizing it when I felt like I’d eaten too much at a meal, getting rid of anything I felt guilty about. And then talk about new found power! I could eat whatever I wanted to and not have to deal with the consequences of overeating. But I couldn’t stop and it started growing and I got to the point where I was purging up to thirteen times a day. It was bad.
I remember touring back then, and sometimes I would take a band and sometimes it would be a solo act. I went to Japan by myself and after the show, at 11 o’clock at night, while others went out I would go back to my hotel room, watch Larry King on CNN and munch food. Very lonely. I had a boyfriend then, and finally he got it out of me and I remember saying to him “It is what it is, I’m never talking about this again and look, it’s got nothing to do with you and it’s behind me.”
BB. What did he say?
CF: Well, what could he say? Obviously that relationship fizzled out. But that’s OK. It was after that it got so bad. I got to the point where I was so down. Being in the music industry you get disappointments—a publishing deal with another artist fell through—and it was devastating. There was a point where I was so down I was desperate. It was scary. I decided I couldn’t live that way anymore. When you are going to end your life you have no reason to worry. It was all going to be over. For the first time, I got rid of all fear. Then, in that small moment, I heard a voice, my inner voice. It was my turning point. I realized I had the power to choose how I perceived my life. In that choice I found power. It took a couple of years after that point to finally stop because bulimia is a physical addiction as well as emotional one.
BB: I liked your line in your book, ‘My entire existence depended on the ability to eat away my problems, then purge them along with the food I consumed.’ That’s what it becomes doesn’t it? Food becomes our whiskey bottle or packet of fags, a way to not deal with reality.
CF: That’s what fabulous about bulimia. I would go through the process of burying pain or hurt by overeating, and then purging not only the food, but also the pain with it. I would think, Cool, I got rid of this. That’s really hard to explain to someone. You have to learn to deal with yourself. I mean therapy can help but at the end of the day you have to deal with it yourself. Did you go to therapy?
BB. Like you, I didn’t during my worst years. I tried a couple of times but the first counselor I went to at the Eating Disorders Association in NZ was really fat. And you know…
CF. Oh no, you can’t.
BB. Exactly. Put the fat counselor in front of the meth addict, not the bulimic!
CF. Therapy can help but I don’t believe it’s vital. When I first wrote my book, Humanville, I thought the best place to start sharing it was eating disorder clinics. But I got so much resistance because what I was saying was that I found my strength though the power of believing in choice, finding my inner voice, choosing love, not fear—not through going to therapy. I ended up starting an eating disorders coalition of my own in Tennessee with a great doctor— Vanderbelt—who had a pure heart. The coalition grew and grew.
BB: That’s fantastic. How are you with your body now?
CF. I eat great now but I had no idea that I was actually a slim person. Finally, I found out! I still fear fat though. The other day I was talking to a girlfriend, and she used to be a model, and we were all laughing at ourselves because we’re all in our fifties but we’re doing OK, you know. And she said she was on a diet and I just could never do that anymore. Not after anorexia and bulimia. I can’t. You know, this doesn’t go away. Every day I choose to stay on the healthy path. Every day is a choice. It means I am OK.
BB. Did you find that when you were purging you were actually putting on weight?
CF. Yes, that happened to me too. I gained weight as well. No matter how much we think we’re getting rid of all the food we’re not. And that was helpful when it stopped working because my anorexic personality was still in there, thinking ‘oh no, don’t put on weight…’ At the end of the day there is a lot more awareness now. I remember when Karen Carpenter died in 1981 or ’82, I was not bulimic then but I was shocked that they talked about it. I had a private battle because I didn’t know anybody else.
BB: Were there are other girls in college like you?
CF: I don’t know, I was very much Miss Overachiever, on the student council, studying and exercising but I wasn’t a sorority girl or somebody who bonded with others. I didn’t notice a lot of other girls.
BB: I think bulimia forces us to keep everyone at a distance. I also picked men who were addicts and emotionally distant. Did you do anything like that?
CF: Oh yeah. Well, anorexia turns sexuality off but later, at 24, I got into a relationship with an older guy in LA. He wasn’t an alcoholic but he had an alcoholic personality—emotionally abusive—and I was always walking on eggshells. I was with him most of my twenties and had no tools to deal with it. I gave him all my power.
BB: It took me a long time to realize that it wasn’t actually the fault of the men I was picking (‘cause I was picking them) but I didn’t believe I deserved anything better. It felt so devastatingly simple when I discovered that I had a choice.
CF. Simple and hard. Once you get over the hump and are able to live a normal life, let people in, find love and then you’ll like ‘wow, that wasn’t so hard’ but getting to that point, for me, was very hard. It took me a long time. Honestly, I was 46-years-old when I got married. And my husband’s younger than me—I could not relate to people my own age at all. I trust him so much. He’s really the first man I ever let in. I was lucky I found him.
BB. On a radio interview you did recently, a young woman called in, and said she was worried about her boyfriend looking at images of thin woman everywhere and thinking ‘what will he think when he sees me naked?’
CF. I know for a fact that men don’t like thin women. I’ve learned that from my husband and from all of my friends. Men like curves. It’s women that don’t get that. Like Sophia, the Colombian girl on Modern Family, you put her next to Miley Cyrus and ask men who they are attracted to and they will pick Sophia. She is not a thin girl; she is a full figured, beautiful girl. But for some reason women think we should be thin.
BB. And sadly, often women like Sophia aren’t happy with their curves and want to be thinner.
CF. I fall into the trap too. I think I will always try to be my size 4. That’s a comfort level for me. But you know, that’s still slim. I work out with weights and eat really well but so many of us think that we should be thin. It’s really hard, especially in the single world, when you’re dealing with men who have their own insecurities. Often a guy who makes nasty comments about a woman’s figure is covering up his own stuff. And I think are they looking into the mirror? It’s hard when you’re single and you want love in your life and you can buy into that pressure to be thin.
BB. I worry about protecting my daughter from dumb ass comments by guys.
CF. I don’t have children and wanted to ask you how pregnancy was for you?
BB. I had always dreaded it, expecting to get elephant legs and the unthinkable fat. And actually when I was first pregnant with my son I felt fat, sick and I couldn’t stop eating. Alarm bells for a bulimic! But then it changed. My tummy popped out about half way through and I didn’t feel fat, but ripe. Beautiful. I ended up strutting around in my bikini at 9 months. My body was no longer the enemy and I was proud of it for creating something.
CF. Good for you.
BB: Has your singing been something you could always rely on, like a creative outlet?
CF: I think it helped. Having a creative outlet always helps, it was important for me.
BB: And what about writing your book, Humanville?
CF: The last thing I ever thought I’d do is to write a book. That was nowhere in my dreams. Singing was my only focus. I’m thrilled with my life. I wouldn’t change anything—bulimia and all—it’s all been part of the process about becoming who I am. But you know you’re over something when you can talk about it. Not be scared. You also know you’re over it when you want to give back. Through a miracle, I overcame my eating disorders and desired to share my story with others who have lived (or are living) in the nightmare I’d been in. I wanted to avoid writing the typical “woe is me” self-help book that might run the risk of being too self-indulgent, so I decided to create a story that could be read as a fable
BB: I totally agree. Sharing stories is a great way to connect people who have felt isolated with big bad bulimia. Thank you so much for sharing your story.
- Muslim Men and Eating Disorders (waragainsteatingdisorder.wordpress.com)