Tall, blonde and smiling, Kirsten Haglund oozes the confidence of someone who has it all. She won Miss America in 2008, lives with her husband Ryan in New York City, runs a foundation and continues to work as a television personality and commentator. One would never guess by looking at her that she struggled for years with anorexia. With the start of eating disorder awareness week, which runs from February 21-27, I sat down to talk with the former Miss America about her struggles with anorexia, her journey to recovery, how it became her platform throughout her time in pageants and how she chooses to define beauty after it all.
Your platform [as Miss America] was eating disorders and I know you struggled with anorexia so where did your struggle begin and what was the starting point for that?
I started to struggle with the symptoms of anorexia when I was twelve years old but [there was] kind of this mindset that led up to it: perfection, over-achieving, people pleasing and really you know that desire to be loved and worthy and accepted all that started at a very young age. I was always a good kid and always wanted to do well. I got good grades and I had an older brother who was always the kid who was having problems and so I was the good kid. I was the good girl. I had external and internal pressure and expectations to always be a good girl and to always do things well and to measure up to these very high expectations and I did always place these high expectations on myself.
So [that mindset] coupled with being involved in the ballet world. I started dancing when I was three years old and quickly grew to love ballet and danced seven days a week. Of course that brings with it a physical aesthetic that’s very very thin and it didn’t really make much of an impression on me when I was young other than all the ballerinas I looked up to were very thin. But then of course when you turn twelve years old and your body starts to change and you come into puberty you become very self-aware and then also I just became very aware of what it was going to take in order to become a professional dancer and that’s what I wanted to be. So just this desire to be perfect and to please my instructors and to be a good ballerina I said “Well I understand I need to do whatever it takes to be good but I also want to do whatever it takes in order to look like a ballet dancer and to be very thin” and that’s when I started to severely restrict my food and calorie intake and started exercising and sort of got on this course to suffering very severely with an eating disorder. I didn’t start out one day saying “I’m going to have an eating disorder” it just started out with this determination to do whatever it took and I thought that was a good thing but obviously it wasn’t. And I really want to emphasize that yes it was about the food because it was about achieving a certain body type but what I thought came along with that body type was more than just thinness it was also love, it was acceptance, it was worth and being special and a certainty of knowing that I would have the career I wanted so it was much more deeply emotional than it was just physical.
Also that same summer that I was starting to struggle my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and so it was also this real need to make sure that I could do something with my life and that I could be worth something because there were so many other things in me life going wrong one of which my mom being diagnosed with cancer and the possibility that she could die so that lent itself to the feeling of chaos that was going on around my life at the time.
I know that you said your struggle was deeply emotionally rooted and anyone can struggle with an eating disorder, right? I mean it’s not just pubescent teenage girls that it affects it can affect anyone at any time, correct?
Right, that’s a big misconception. And one of the biggest misconceptions is just that it’s college-aged girls or that it’s just white, middle-class girls and that’s just not the case. We’re seeing an increasing number of men that struggle with this illness and middle-aged women after their children leave the house who are coming into a new phase and pressures in life. We’re seeing an uptick in women in that age group struggling with eating disorders. Women of all races, ethnicities all feel pressured to have a certain body type but also have pressure in general that they feel like they need to do something to cope with that pressure or with that chaos or with that trauma and in a similar way, people can understand those who go to drugs or to alcohol or to prescription drugs to fill that void and to deal with that immense pressure of that life transition the same way people also go to eating disorders whether it’s binging and purging or exercise addiction or restricting with anorexia or binge eating disorder. It’s something that people go to to provide a safe haven but, of course, it doesn’t; it can lead to very serious health complications and even death.
What caused you to seek treatment and what was the most important part of that treatment you received?
Initially I didn’t want to get help. I think deep down I knew I couldn’t continue in what I was doing forever but I didn’t know how I could possibly break out of that. So, at fifteen years old my parents were the ones who took me to a pediatrician and forced me to go and that pediatrician then recommended me to a treatment team of doctors: an eating disorder specialist, a psychologist and a nutritionist, in order for them to all work together and try to get me to a healthy place. Not only [get my] weight stabilized but also to deal with some of the underlying emotional issues. When I first started going to those doctors I didn’t really want to get better I thought they were just going to try and make me fat and so I was terrified of getting better and of recovery and what that meant because my eating disorder was my safe place.
But six months into treatment I really realized that I did want to get better and that came one day when I was actually exercising and running on the treadmill and I almost passed out. I just felt very weak and like my heart was racing and all of a sudden I realized that this was seriously dangerous. I had never really felt that before; just how dangerous it was and that people died and I just realized in that moment that I didn’t want to die. I wanted to live. I wanted to get married. I wanted to have children and I wanted to travel the world. I wanted to do things and I wanted to make an impact on people’s lives. All of these dreams just kept welling up inside of me and I realized I wanted to live and in order to live I needed to heal my relationship with my body and with food and stop going to my eating disorder to discover my sense of self-worth, that it wasn’t going to be found there, that the eating disorder lied and was full of false promises that were never going to be fulfilled.
So that was really my rock bottom and my realization and from there I started to really work with my doctors. It was hard. It was not easy and I had lots of crying fights with my mom about food and what I would eat and what I wouldn’t eat. I was really challenged a lot by my psychologist and my treatment team to consider options other than ballet and things that I could do in my life. I started pushing myself outside of my comfort zone, hanging out with friends more, going to more parties, doing activities with my youth group, doing service activities, getting involved more with my choir and other activities at school. As someone who is a perfectionist and feeling like I couldn’t do anything other than ballet, discovering that I could do other things and I was good at other things and I could maintain friendships and everyone wasn’t just looking at me based on what I looked like or how thin I was. People did want to be my friend for who I was as a person and so developing that self-confidence and self-acceptance of who I was as a person was really important but it was all very difficult and it was always one step forward and two steps back, three steps forward and five steps back. It was a lot of continuing to have hope in situations that felt very hopeless. With the support of my treatment team and my family and friends I was able to, after two years, get to a healthy weight and get to a place where I felt confident in and loved myself and my body and confident in my skills and abilities and ready to face life head on and really feel free from the eating disorder behaviors. But it was hard, it’s not easy and it really took a lot of support and a lot of patience and a lot of hard work.
You were very young at just nineteen years old when you were doing Miss America were you scared to be speaking out about your eating disorder in front of these people?
[Laughs] Yes of course! Initially, when I began to compete I just entered a local pageant in my hometown of Farmington Hills, Michigan kind of on a whim and just wanting to get some scholarship money for college. I was not expecting to win and therefore wasn’t expecting to have to talk about my platform issue and talk about eating disorders. In the back of my head I thought “Well, if anyone asks me a question about it I can just say I grew up in the ballet world and so I understand the pressures that are put on young women and blah, blah, blah” but then I won that pageant and then I won Miss Michigan and then I won Miss America kind of all three right in a row and never expected that to happen so then I found myself in this position of having to talk about it when I never had prepared to. It was really scary and I initially thought a lot of people were going to judge me and think that I was not capable of doing this job and [say] how could I possibly be in a leadership position or a role model to anyone when I had struggled with something so severely? When I started speaking about my story and what I’d gone through, I found that people were so supportive and so many people connected with the struggle either if they had struggled with it themselves or knew someone who had or even if it wasn’t an eating disorder and even if it was another addiction or a struggle with depression and anxiety or another trial they had been through in their life they just so loved seeing someone being open and honest and vulnerable and talking about the things they’d been through. I just saw how powerful that was and so really it became my passion for sharing my story and talking about eating disorders became less about just me and a cathartic sharing of my story but really more about helping other people feel confident in sharing what they’d been through and using that as inspiration for other people and giving them space to be and to struggle and to be on a path of discovering what health and wellness and fullness of life really meant to them.
Miss America focuses a bit on contestants’ bodies in both the swimsuit and evening wear portions. Was that something you worried about as someone who was recovering?
Initially no and just because I had worked so hard to get to a place where I loved my body and where I appreciated its flaws. It was really militaristic accepting of my body and very much like “I love my thighs! I love my stomach! I love my arms!” and all the places I hated before and so I took it as a real exercise in pride and really being proud of how hard I’d worked at overcoming my anorexia and to love my body. So that was initially my feeling toward it and interestingly, having the other contestants know that this was my platform issue, a lot of girls came up to me and shared their own struggles with body image or things that they were dealing with and I kind of became one of those people that other contestants felt they could open up to about it.
In retrospect, now being twenty-seven years old and no longer nineteen, I look back and I think, “Wow, we really don’t need a swimsuit competition”. [Laughs] It’s something that I’ve spoken out about in the media and I love the Miss America Organization, it did incredible things for me. It helped me win $65,000 in scholarship and I graduated debt free and it gave me this incredible platform. So it did amazing things for me in my life but I will continue to say the whole pageant is a job interview for what you do during your year as Miss America and never once as Miss America did I wear a swimsuit, did I pose in a swimsuit catalog or [wear] anywhere near the little amount of clothing that you wear in a swimsuit on that stage the night of the competition. I just don’t really think that we need it and I’ll continue to have that as my opinion and so looking back I’m like “Yeah that’s not great that when I Google myself the first pictures that show up of me are you know, pictures in a swimsuit” but such is life. That’s my opinion now and it’s just like everything in your life you try to do the best with it that you can and try to use whatever is given to you in a positive way and so that’s what I try to do. I’m thankful that a lot of the girls that might be most vulnerable to looking at their bodies critically may be the ones that are watching the Miss America pageant and that gives me an opportunity to speak directly into their lives and combat that.
So while you were the face of Miss America how did you use your platform to change the way people in the media talk about eating disorders and body image?
The number one thing that you are able to do is use every single media appearance from the national to the local level. You do hundreds throughout the year and I’m not exaggerating. You do some form of media almost every single day and sometimes multiple times a day. So, when they ask you what your platform is to be you’re able to talk about it and to talk about the misconceptions around eating disorders, to briefly say you struggled with it and share it and that people can get help and we need to love and accept ourselves for who we are. I mean every single media appearance I was able to do, I was able to talk about that and additionally I was able to go to Capitol Hill and speak with lawmakers about eating disorder legislation for prevention and for treatment coverage with the Eating Disorders Coalition. I was able to do a lot of events with the National Eating Disorder Awareness Association which I’m now and ambassador for and then of course that was inspiration for creating my foundation in 2009, The Kirsten Haglund Foundation which raises money for treatment. Now I’ve continued those relationships and continued traveling across the country speaking as a community relations specialist with Timberline Knolls, which is a treatment center outside of Chicago. I do all their social media, I do community outreach events, I speak on college campuses and I do a ton of work with sororities so it’s just ballooned into all this work that I’ve been able to do from the relationships I’ve built since Miss America. Also I’ve spoken on panels with Paige Geller of Paige Premium Denim to Diane von Furstenburg and Bradley Bayou and people from all different spheres of this conversation: the eating disorders world, the fashion world and the media. So what I found so cool and fascinating is that two years ago in 2013, I was doing rounds in the media about this “obese” Barbie that an artist had made a mock up of and they were getting people to comment on it and I was one of the ones that was asked and I said “This is great! Why don’t we have more Barbies that represent all the different sizes of women that there are and represent the diversity of body shape and size? I think that would be great.” Now two years later Barbie just came out with these various sizes of Barbie which is amazing! It’s just really cool to have been able to see over the last five to seven years the conversation really starting to change. I’m in no way saying that I’m responsible for that, I’m obviously not, but it is great to have been a part of that and continue to be able to use whatever platform that I have to continue to push that dialog forward.
With the new “normal” Barbie just released like you said, what do you think the media needs to do to continue to change the way we look at and discuss body image?
I just think that it’s very very important to have a diversity of various shapes and sizes represented in media, in fashion and to be intentional about it but also not go overboard and say curvy is the only shape and size that is beautiful. There are women that have small breasts, there are women that have large breasts, that have more pear shape, that have more straight shape. There are women that have hourglass figures. Everyone has a different shape or size and everyone has a different set weight and all of us can be considered beautiful. The more diversity of shape and size that we see I think across the board is excellent and wonderful. I also think that the more women can get away from body-shaming one and other, whether it’s shaming someone for being fat or body-shaming someone for being skinny, which we are now seeing too. All body shapes and sizes can be considered beautiful. I think it’s important to see size diversity and also to with our words, as women, support other women and not tear one and other down and to really celebrate with our lips, with our blogs, with our media appearances and whatever way or platform we have to support other women and celebrate shape and size diversity.
Before you mentioned your Kirsten Haglund Foundation and how some of your work inspired that. What does the Kirsten Haglund Foundation do and what motivated you to start it?
We provide scholarships for treatment. Families, women and men can apply for a scholarship and we work with our clinical advisory board as well as whatever treatment team that they have in place or if they’re looking to go to treatment to help finance [it] because it can be very very expensive. It is kind of covered by insurance. Some treatment is, some treatment is not. Some insurance companies will pay for treatment until you get to your set weight and then they’ll stop covering treatment which of course any one who knows eating disorder treatment knows that once you get to your set weight is really when your brain can function properly and when the real treatment begins it’s not when it’s ending. So some insurance companies have been detrimental to individuals getting the care that they need to sustain a long-term recovery. What we try to do is to help make that [long term recovery] possible. We will either fund their treatment or negotiate with their insurance companies or we’ll help them do their own fundraisers but we really just want to be a partner in their journey to help them get the treatment that they need and that’s what we’ve been doing since 2009. The inspiration really was just to continue the work I was doing as Miss America and to try to meet a need because this is a need of a lot of families. We wanted to try to assemble people and stakeholders and those with resources to help fund that need.
Okay final question: BELLA’s tagline is ‘Beauty defined by you’. How do you define beauty?[Laughs] A size 23-inch waist…No, I’m joking! I think a lot of women will say beauty is from the inside, beauty is this and beauty is that but I think for me true beauty is confidence. A humble kind of confidence because cocky confidence is not compelling or attractive in any way shape or form but a true loving and acceptance of who you are and a loving acceptance of others, that kind of quiet confidence is truly beautiful. I think that we all know people in our lives, especially women, who have that kind of humble confidence and we consider them so beautiful and If you were to ask us subjectively “are they a pretty person?” you couldn’t answer honestly because their spirit is just so beautiful. I think that that is true beauty. That’s the kind of beauty that I strive for and that’s the kind of beauty that I think all women should strive for and it really is what makes someone more attractive than a pretty face and a perfect body any day of the week.
Follow Kirsten on Twitter @KirstenHaglund and Instagram @kirsten_haglund