Kirsten Haglund, Miss America 2008, speaks on campus Tuesday night about her adolescent struggle with anorexia.
Kirsten Haglund, Miss America 2008, speaks on campus Tuesday night about her adolescent struggle with anorexia.

After an adolescent battle with anorexia, wearing a smile for the world is often challenging.

Yet Kirstin Haglund, Miss America 2008, said through that struggle, her main purpose in life is to raise awareness of the dangers of eating disorders.

"Eating disorders have become an epidemic these days," said Haglund, who will speak at the University of Colorado on Tuesday as part of National Eating Disorders Week. "There is a lot of pressure and extra stress in a college student's life. Many young women struggle in this diet culture ... it's like a big melting pot, which can lend toward the formation of an eating disorder."

The beauty queen's emotional journey featured a treacherous climb to a current stable point of self-acceptance. Haglund's early standards of beauty were formed at age 12 while training in a professional, highly-competitive ballet environment.

Dance, coupled with puberty and lowered teenage self esteem led Haglund to severely restrict her diet. By 15, her health was declining, her weight was wearing thin, she lost her menstrual cycle, her weak muscles hindered her strength in ballet and she slipped into a state of depression.

"The lie that nobody ever tells you is that I thought I was supposed to be happier and stronger by dieting and losing weight," Haglund said. "But that is just not true. All of these things that were supposed to be getting better by dieting were getting worse."

After intervening parents and months of specialists, Haglund renourished her body at age 21 and has remained relapse-free.

If you go

What: Kirsten Haglund on "Freedom from Perfection: Overcoming Body Wars, Diet Culture and Taking Back Our Souls"

When: 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Math 100, University of Colorado campus, Boulder

Cost: Free

colorado.edu/sacs/counseling

A major healing factor came with leaving her life of dance, she said.

"Leaving ballet was terrifying," said Haglund who is now pursuing a musical theater degree at school in Cincinnati, Ohio. "Ballet had become my identity for so long. I had to stop doing ballet and stop thinking about it as a career goal."

As a result of this realization, Haglund said she often encourages parents to involve their children in more than one activity as to not pigeonhole them.

"I was at the point where if I wasn't going to be in ballet, I didn't know who I was," she said. "I didn't know what I was going to be. It had become everything that had formed my identity for so long."

Haglund said she has learned to cope with her disorder through therapy and a strong support system of family, friends and her church.

What does she see when she looks in the mirror now?

"I see a girl trying to grow up," she said. "Life is a process, life is a journey. I continue to grow and learn from each experience. My message is you are who you are. Everybody has their own innate skills and abilities and you shouldn't have to change yourself to fit into any sort of mold."

Beauty to Haglund can be defined by one word: confidence.

"Confidence comes from self acceptance of yourself," she said. "At some point in our lives, we're all going to screw up and fail. We need to learn to let go of perfectionism.

"Having a self peace and knowing who you are is what's the most important."