Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Former Miss America discusses anorexia

Beauty pageants actually helped her heal from anorexia, says Kirsten Haglund. Photo by Kay Hinton.

By Mary Loftus, Emory Magazine

Kirsten Lora Haglund, Miss America 2008, is now a junior at Emory, majoring in political science. But as a girl growing up in Farmington Hills, Michigan, her dream was to become a ballerina.

And that was how the trouble with food began.

“When I was 12, I went away to a very intensive ballet camp for the summer. I was living away from home for the first time, and my mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer,” Haglund says. “Also, I was going through puberty, and I dreaded that. As a ballet dancer you want to stay thin and graceful and elegant.”

She remembers the day she threw her lunch away for the first time. Everyone else was having a bit of granola, an apple. “I felt like a cow, eating a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich,” she says.

Not eating felt like being in complete control—at least of her own body. “I felt above mere mortals, that I could subsist without food. Restricting calories was accomplishing what other people couldn’t. It gave me significance. I was the skinny girl.”

Already tall and slim, Haglund started with the aim of losing five pounds, but that number rapidly escalated. She began severely restricting her food intake to just 900 calories a day, living mostly on Diet Coke, coffee, gum, lettuce, and an occasional spoonful of peanut butter or grilled chicken breast with lemon.

“I started to hate dancing,” she says. “I was tired and had no energy, and you always had to look in mirrors. I was never satisfied; I kept seeing parts of my body I hated more and more.”

Always a straight-A student, she was still excelling in school. But deep down, Haglund knew something was wrong. Her hair started to fall out, her nails became brittle, and she was always cold. She stopped having her period. She isolated, staying away from social functions with food or friends who asked questions. She lost 30 pounds in three years.

When her parents intervened and took her to a doctor, Haglund remembers, “I was so mad. And I hated that doctor. Now we’re friends, so I can say that.”

A physical showed that Haglund’s health, at 15, had already been compromised. She had osteopenia, a precursor to osteoporosis and renal insufficiency. She began seeing an eating disorder specialist, a nutritionist, and a psychologist, multiple times a week throughout high school.

“I can’t even remember now what I saw in the mirror when I was sick, because my eyes have changed,” she says. “But I do remember feeling that my willpower, the restrictions, were never enough. I kept a journal of what I ate and how much I exercised, and had a constant dialogue going on in my brain, whenever I consumed calories, of how and when I was going to burn them off.”

“Genetics loads the gun and environment pulls the trigger,” Haglund adds. “I think I had both a genetic predisposition and also stressors, like ballet.”

But she overcame the disorder before entering her first pageant, Miss Oakland County—a stepping stone to Miss Michigan—at 17. She wanted to attend the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, and needed scholarships to afford tuition. Haglund competed in the Miss Michigan pageant in June 2007. She won a preliminary swimsuit award and performed “Adele’s Laughing Song” from the operetta Die Fledermaus.

Haglund believes that pageants, rather than compromising her recovery from anorexia, actually helped her to heal.

“The ideal pageant body is much healthier than the ideal ballet dancer’s body,” she says.

At 19, she went on to represent Michigan in the Miss America 2008 pageant, a newly “modernized” version broadcast for the first time on the network TLC. The youngest of the 53 women vying for the crown, Haglund sang a Broadway-style rendition of “Over the Rainbow,” and her platform was eating disorder awareness.

On January 26, 2008, more than three million TV viewers watched as Haglund was crowned the eighty-third Miss America. With $60,000 in scholarship money, Haglund decided to resume college at Emory, largely because of its location in Atlanta and its top-20 standing.

She has continued to pursue her pageant platform by starting the Kirsten Haglund Foundation to assist girls who need treatment for eating disorders. The foundation has given financial assistance to 13 girls so far and has helped countless others by advocating for their treatment, assisting with insurance, and providing encouragement. Haglund speaks at events all over the country about body image and overcoming anorexia. “Parents can sometimes think it’s just a phase,” she says. “But if you catch it early, like anything else, there’s a much better chance for recovery.”

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