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Kirsten Haglund is crowned Miss America 2008.
Kirsten Haglund is crowned Miss America 2008.

DETROIT — She poses like a champion, one foot in front of the other, a dazzling — yet not forced-looking — smile at the ready.

And even when she’s asked the same questions over and over, when she has to shake one more hand, smile for one more picture or when yet another little girl begs to see her sparkly crown, Farmington Hills, Mich., native Kirsten Haglund — Miss America 2008 — obliges.

After all, she’s more than a beauty queen. She’s a role model for women, especially those who suffer from eating disorders.

Her mother, Iora Haglund, never thought she’d see her daughter go to college — let alone be crowned Miss America. Just five years ago, Kirsten Haglund was so sick, so deep in the throes of anorexia, her family had shelved dreams of a normal future and was just trying to get her back to being healthy.

But Haglund managed to overcome it, and is now trying to help others with eating disorders though a nonprofit she started, the Kirsten Haglund Foundation.

“I have to give back,” says Haglund, 20. “That’s very important to me. We’re all given struggles in our lives. We have to use those struggles for good.

“I want to show others that recovery is possible.”

Talking about her illness — and her recovery — helps her heal and stay on track.

Still, there are good days and bad days, Haglund says. She still struggles with food: What to eat? How much? And she still has days when she doesn’t like the way she looks in the mirror.

On those days, she talks to her mother, her dietitian, her close friend Julianne Cole, who also is in recovery from anorexia.

But she gets through them, knowing that someone needs to stand up for better treatment options, more awareness about the warning signs and help to take the focus away from the so-called perfect body.

From the time she was a little girl, Haglund wanted to be a ballerina. She took lessons like many little girls do, but for her, it was more than a hobby. It was her life. She felt at home in her leotards and tights, learning the steps and practicing the routines. But it was her beloved ballet that triggered an eating disorder.

While at ballet camp as a 12-year-old girl, Haglund realized she didn’t have the typical dancer’s body: Short torso, long legs, and thin, thin, thin.

A simple diet might do the trick, the preteen thought. And so she went from a French fry-loving, carefree girl who rarely gave her parents a minute’s worry to a sullen, withdrawn teen who refused to eat.

Her parents — both registered nurses — didn’t realize their daughter had an eating disorder until Haglund was 15. Immediately, they sought treatment from her pediatrician, a dietitian and a therapist.

“It was months before she realized how sick she was and then tried to get better,” her mother said. “Then, it was another year of getting better. During that entire period of time, I felt like the food police.”

There was a lot of anxiety and worry, Iora Haglund said. But as Haglund began to gain weight things got better and easier.

“She’s in recovery, and a part of that is learning to cope and be strong,” her mother said. “She’ll tell you that she couldn’t have done any of this without God.”