Taking Control of Life

By Matt Hawkins
March 4, 2014

Kirsten Haglund’s recovery from eating disorders pushed her into the national spotlight as a cultural critic and compassionate advocate for women’s empowerment. Haglund, Miss America 2008, encouraged Bradley students Monday night to wrestle their self-worth away from cultural standards.

“We live in a society that is at war with bodies, especially women’s bodies,” she said. “Every day is a different standard of beauty. Society is so confused what the definition of beauty is.”

Haglund now is an ambassador for the National Eating Disorders Association and a community relations specialist for Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center in suburban Chicago.

She noted 30 million Americans have eating disorders, with 20 percent of American women battling them. Additionally, more than 40 percent of students by third grade are trying to be thinner, with children dieting as early as age 8.

Those statistics reveal a country whose youth link self-worth to the drive to succeed in life. That, as Haglund learned firsthand, could be devastating.

“There’s so much pressure to be all these things and you can’t be perfect, so stop trying to be,” she said. “There’s something wonderful and freeing about being normal and ordinary, as silly as that sounds.”

Haglund developed anorexia at age 12 while she pursued her professional ballet dreams. After three years of spiraling, she reached a crisis at 15 when she nearly passed out during a workout.

“To feel out of control of your body at age 15 was scary,” she said. “I felt my mortality for the first time. I heard of people who died from eating disorders, but I didn’t think I could until that day.”

Haglund, at the urging of her parents, sought professional help. She gave up ballet dreams and found new interests.

“I felt for the first time in years the feeling of hope of things I wanted to do,” she said. “I wanted those things, I wanted life free from this cycle of slavery.”

As she recovered, she learned a healthy perspective of food and changed her media habits. Instead of reading glamour magazines, she became an avid reader of “The Economist” and “Time.”

“Sometimes in our cynicism, we forget we are affected by these things more than we know,” Haglund said. “All my standards changed when I stopped comparing myself to magazines.”

Then, she jumped into Miss America-affiliated pageants in Oakland County, Mich., to earn money for college. Unexpectedly, she found herself on the speaking circuit and worked her way to the national competition.

As speaking opportunities came her way, she began to share her struggles with audiences and realized younger people responded to the story.

“I’ve seen a major shift with people open to mental health issues, especially eating disorders,” Haglund said. “Young people have a willingness to dialogue that the generation above us doesn’t have. They’re more willing to talk, and that forces people to talk about the hard things.”

She used her platform to challenge the beauty and pageant industry from the inside, where she criticized heavily edited photos of her, refused to wear some immodest gowns and spoke against pageants’ swimsuit competitions.

“I hate it,” Haglund said of the swimsuit competition, “especially with my husband whose friends Google me. I don’t like it.”

Haglund’s message resonated with Bradley students and staff.

Counselor Lisa Fix-Griffin commended the university’s residence hall staff for proactively reaching out to students who need help. However, as 20 percent of any college’s population likely struggles with eating disorders, some students may not receive assistance.

“People know it’s rampant, but there’s still a lack of understanding,” she said. “She puts a face to that.”

Allie Smith ’15 appreciated the open discussion about the stress of college life.

“We’re at an age when there’s a lot of pressure,” she said. “On top of that, peer pressure from body image is unneeded. This puts things in perspective.”

The presentation, part of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, was sponsored by The Body Project with funding from the Intellectual and Cultural Activities Committee. Additional support was provided by Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center.