Michigan native and former Miss America 2008, Kirsten Haglund, speaks out about overcoming her eating disorder when she was younger. The 24-year-old founded the Kirsten Haglund Foundation in February of 2009 with a mission to fundraise and provide treatment scholarships in order to assist families and individuals battling eating disorders.
She is also active in volunteering with One Hundred Days, an organization based in Atlanta that is building Rwanda’s first children’s hospital, and creating small business initiatives in the Kigali community. Kirsten graduates in May 2013 with a B.A. in Political Science from Emory University.
Growing up you wanted to become a professional ballerina, but along with keeping up with your dance routines, you had to do the same for your measurements. How did this effect you as a young girl?
Ballet is highly competitive and the body ideal is unnaturally thin. My passion for ballet led me to want to excel, not only technically, but also in conforming to the idea body type for a dancer. Out of fear that gaining weight could prevent me from dance opportunities or even a career in ballet, I decided that I needed to be thin, whatever the cost – that was when I began the “diet” that became an eating disorder.
What kinds of difficulties did you encounter when dealing with anorexia at a young age?
Starving yourself is not fun – it is not a “lifestyle” or a “phase,” it is an all-consuming, obsessive disease that only succeeds in making you hungry, depressed, isolated and angry. The thinner I became, the fatter I felt, the harder I became on myself to pursue perfection. But thinness never satisfies, and it doesn't make people love you – it drives them away because you become, and I became, a shell of your former self. Not to mention your body starts shutting down – cold all the time, losing hair, fatigue – anorexia is the most deadly mental illness, especially for adolescents.
Not many people are able to defeat their eating disorder, what or who helped you to overcome yours
I am incredibly thankful that my parents and professionals intervened when I was still in denial to force me into treatment. It wasn't easy, but after two years of outpatient treatment with a physician, nutritionist and psychologist, I learned to want a life outside my eating disorder. Learning about food and how it is fuel to take me places and help me to think, run, laugh, cry and love was the most important thing. From there, I focused on identifying the triggers of my low self-esteem and body-image, and learned ways I could accept what I could not control.
What was the turning point in your life that led you to your current direction?
Recovery and finding my voice over the period of two years in therapy, and then my job as Miss America really helped me to see that my story and who I was was valuable, not due to any inherent greatness but just due to authenticity and openness. Everyone has struggled with something, but is given that struggle in order to help and comfort others who later may go through the same thing.
You started your own foundation, www.kirstenhaglund.org and you do several speaking engagements with the National Eating Disorder Association, what made you become involved with this?
I started my Foundation in 2009 in an effort to give back to families and individuals who are trying to get treatment for this illness. We raise awareness and funds for treatment. I also speak, write and advocate as Community Relations Specialist for Timberline Knolls, a residential treatment center. I just wanted to continue giving back and encouraging people who have been affected by body hatred and eating disorders to have hope – that recovery and freedom is possible.
You are former Miss America 2008, during competition, how did you handle the pressure from media and your peers to maintain your weight?
As Miss America, having a camera on you all of the time and being considered by many as the American “ideal,” the pressure is implied. I quickly realized though, that there is no “ideal” -- everyone has a very different opinion on what kind of body or face is beautiful.
That means, you cannot possibly please everyone. That is very freeing. That left me able to just be myself, and do the best that I could every day.
There was a study done by the Klarman Eating Disorder that found that young girls were more afraid of becoming overweight than losing a parent or cancer. Why do you think younger girls are becoming more and more self conscious of their bodies?
This makes me so sad because women, now more than ever, have so many opportunities – to do, to go, to accomplish more than any generation of women in history. And yet, we are still confined, or allow ourselves to be confined, by one standard of beauty – one the media oftentimes is responsible for creating.
I am not saying a girl can't wear makeup or cute clothes, just don't make it your idol. Girls hear the message earlier and earlier that to be a woman is to be on a diet, not like your thighs, and swear off carbs – so that is what they do, earlier and earlier. They see their moms doing it. And they see celebrities doing it, and celebrities are adored. Girls want to be loved and adored – so they think if they're thin they'll be loved.
Five, 10, 50 years down the line when you've achieved everything you aspire for today, where do you see yourself?
I don't make 10 year plans anymore, because life often has something much more fabulous in mind. For example, I never planned or dreamed of being Miss America, but am absolutely so glad that it happened and it changed my life for the better. So in 10 years, I just want to be able to do what I love, helping women, maybe have a family, travel and have joy. But to be joyful is a choice, not a result of circumstances – so wherever I may be, I can tell you with certainty that I will be happy.
Evelyn Pelczar | Elite.