Two women smile hugging each other, one young with blond hair, the other older with brown hair. They're mother and daughter.

Life with an Eating Disorder

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By Erica Kennedy

Kirsten Haglund, founder of the Kirsten Haglund Foundation talks about the lifelong relationship she has had with herself and what she has learned.

Kirsten held her eyes shut tightly while she waited. The audience of thousands in Las Vegas and in homes all across the United States held their breath as the anticipation grew.

Then, after the MC shouted her name, Kirsten shouted, but could not be heard over the roar of the audience as they chanted her name. She was given her crown, flowers, and her last moment alone for a year as she took her first steps as Miss America 2008.

But she knew her life would change, and the world would not know how she struggled, worked, and overcame so much in order for her to reach this moment in her life. 

Kirsten Haglund was crowned Miss America 2008, has been a regular commentator in politics, entertainment, social issues like women’s health, contributed multiple pieces for the Huffington Post, but her passion has always been centered around her founding of the Kirsten Haglund Foundation, an organization that advocates for more awareness surrounding eating disorders. 

From a young age, Kirsten struggled with anorexia, a common eating disorder that affects many. In the United States, it is estimated that over 20 million women and 10 million men have or will struggle with an eating disorder in their lives. It is a treatable illness but still a very serious health issue that impacts all genders, sexual orientations, and ethnicities. These disorders can have serious health consequences, can be accompanied by psychological issues, can be difficult to identify, and are caused by a range of biological, psychological, and sociocultural reasons. 

Kirsten has lived this reality, and has made it her mission to provide resources to those in need so they can receive the help they deserve to life a happy and fulfilling life. Over the past 12 years, she has shared her own personal story about her battle with anorexia, has been advocating for young women, and has been using her voice to tirelessly increase the awareness as a public health priority.

EK: What was it like growing up before you were diagnosed with an eating disorder?

Haglund: I grew up in Farmington Hills, in the suburbs of Detroit. It is very much what you think of when you think of suburbia: Lots of subdivisions and chain stores and strip malls and movie theaters. One older brother, and two really incredible parents; grew up loving school and [being] drawn to the arts from a young age; was enrolled in dance classes when I was three years old where ballet was always my favorite.

I had a very lucky childhood, very blessed and encouraged by all my family and teachers to really always dream big and go for what I wanted, with that kind of that message of, “You can do anything you can be anything you want to be.”

EK: What were the events that led to you discovering about your eating disorder? 

Haglund: People with eating disorder develop over time; it’s not one day, one decision, and it’s usually not because of one contributing factor. It’s a multitude of factors kind of swirling together at a perfect time.

My obsession with food and restriction and calories and weight loss, really began when I was 12 years old. And it was because of years of influence of the ballet world with their body ideal and the perfectionism that created strong desire to be the best that I could possibly be, to never settle for anything less than perfection.

That just became foundational in my thinking from a very young age, and then, when I hit puberty at 12, I was still very insecure in my body because I was also very tall for my age, but I felt bigger than a lot of other girls around me.

My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and our family life just kind of became extremely chaotic. It was very scary and difficult to process. I hyper focused on where to control and what gave me a sense of security in my life when nothing else was secure, focusing on food and being a good ballet dancer, and really putting the pressure on myself to achieve that goal at any cost. These extraordinary life circumstances became triggers and my way of functioning and coping [sic!]. 

EK: What were some of the changes you began to see in yourself and when did you start to see someone about it?

Haglund: Irritability, anger, but also a numbness with also a real sense of paranoia; everyone was out to get me and was against me. I would become elated when someone made a comment about my body shape or size, my fitness, my lightness, or any of those things. Foggy headedness and not really being able to concentrate. Not being able to sleep, having difficulty sleeping, which then led to an even worse mood.

Everything became about the next meal, the next time I would eat or dance; instead of about dreaming something bigger for my own life, my world became very small.

My parents took me to a specialist when I was 15, with a treatment plan, but I was against it. I really didn’t buy into the process for fear of losing control of the shell of a life I had created until about six months into treatment. My brain was starting to be re-nourished and I started to think differently. I became more open-minded to what my therapist was having to say, and my counselors and my dietician.  I just had this realization and it really did hit me like a ton of bricks, what would have happened if I hadn’t begun to recover, and that was that there were actually a lot of things that I wanted to do in my life. I was either going to give my life to that and let that control me, or I could choose to live my own life. 

EK: When you founded the Kirsten Haglund Foundation in 2009, after your year as Miss America, what was the number one message you wanted young women to know through your continuing advocacy?

Haglund: [What] I wanted them to know and hear was to accept themselves, to love and accept themselves. No matter what they look like or the challenges they faced in their path, but to choose to accept themselves with grace, and their imperfection. And to impress upon them that no one is perfect.

That was because, you know, that’s the root of so much of it, acceptance and realizing that perfectionism is a big, deadly lie. The most important thing is that you’re not putting your life in danger anymore by your behavior.

But then the process of staying emotionally and mentally healthy is one that happens over a lifetime. It feels very similar to people saying, you know, when people describe themselves as lifelong learners. It’s like you’re in a lifetime of recovery and discovery for yourself.

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