I was crowned Miss America, but I grew up hating my body

At age 19, in one fell swoop, my life changed forever. In a matter of minutes, I went from being an average teenage girl to being crowned Miss America 2008 onstage in Las Vegas in front of a crowd of thousands, not to mention millions watching at home.

While seven judges decided I was “America’s ideal woman,” there was something I wanted the country, the world, and especially every little girl to understand about me: I wasn’t perfect. In fact, I grew up hating my body and nearly destroyed it.

(Source: MissAmerica.org)
Kirsten Haglund in one of her final photo shoots as Miss America. She won the title at age 19, which was only her third pageant ever. And while to many she is the face of a “perfect” person, her teenage years were far from it. She was at “war” with her body, suffering through years of an eating disorder. (Photo source: MissAmerica.org)

My journey to becoming Miss America wasn’t like a lot of other beauty queens’. I entered a local pageant a year and a half earlier on a whim in order to earn scholarships for college. I accidentally won the pageant, then won my state pageant (Miss Michigan), and then found myself competing at the Super Bowl of pageants, never dreaming I would make it into the top 10 much less win the entire competition. I was far from what is considered the typical “pageant girl.” I wasn’t perfectly coiffed. I didn’t have the perfect body. I didn’t have perfect confidence. And I certainly didn’t have perfectly timed smiles and tears. I was just me. I was just Kirsten.

But I won.

That’s when I realized I needed to combat that “perfect” stereotype, which is a crushing constraint that we all face.

See, the truth is I grew up with very low self-esteem. As a young ballet dancer, I severely struggled with an eating disorder (anorexia), anxiety, and depression. I spent most of my teenage years at war with myself.

I spent most of my teenage years at war with myself.

But I found hope. I found that in God, who eventually brought me to a place of peace, healing, and a proper understanding of perfection. A place where, with His help, I could use my struggles to help others.

Here’s what I learned in those struggles.

1. There are basic truths you need to realize

During my recovery from anorexia, I had to realize some basic truths. The first being: I’ve got only one body from birth until death. One! Most characteristics of that body — how much muscle I’ll be able to put on, my set weight, whether my skin is acne prone, how wide my hips are, or how big my breasts are — are pre-determined by genetics. There’s only so much you can change without going to devastating extremes (which I tried, and it’s an awful life; it doesn’t work, and “being thin = being happy” is a big, fat lie).

I had to learn to love the body God gave me. He loves it and he gave it to me! In fact, God loves our incredible bodies so much He calls them “temples.”

When I came back to a saving faith and realized God was a loving father who created me as unique and exquisite, I suddenly realized hating my body was hurtful to Him. With the help of scripture, my friends, and counselors, I decided to work on loving my body for what it does for me: its strength, movement, and utility rather than seeing it only as an aesthetic object.

2. Practice acceptance

Cultivating a healthy body image takes work. It does not happen overnight.

My ballet teacher used to say, “Practice makes permanent, not perfect.” And she was right. Monitor your self-talk (which is the words you say to yourself about yourself). Is it negative? Are you constantly putting yourself down? If you practice those thoughts, they’ll become a dangerous habit.

When working toward constructing a positive view of myself, I had to monitor the negativity, and practice replacing lies I believed about myself with truths. The glorious realization came after months of practice: I could change my self-talk to more positive, affirming messages.

You know what else I learned? Comparison is the thief of joy. Never once did comparing my body, my accomplishments, or any other trait with someone else make me feel better. It only made me feel worse. It can be hard in a world of hyper-connectivity and social media to stop comparing yourself to others, but I encourage you to be a trailblazer and put positivity out into cyberspace. I promise it’s freeing and amazing! And better yet, it’s contagious.

3. It’s about more than you

Finally, I learned during my year as Miss America that God brought me through the dark clouds of anxiety, self-hatred, and anorexia not only to grow my faith and dependence on Him, but also to help others.

Before the job, I had no clue how many people struggled in silence, how many people appreciated public figures opening up and talking about these things, saying it is okay to reach out for help and that they’re are not alone. I realized my story was about much more than just me.

I realized my story was about much more than just me.

If you’re struggling with identity, self-doubt, or anxiety, to try to get out there and be a part of something bigger than yourself. In my recovery, I started to volunteer at church, I got more involved in the arts and service societies at school, and I started sharing my story with others, trying to be a good friend and a good listener. It helped take the focus off of me and my “issues.” It taught me gratitude and humility.

Through service and vulnerability I learned that it is okay to be flawed and imperfect, because that is what connects us to others and connects us to God. He loves us no matter what brokenness we’ve been through and that is really all that matters.

Yeah, I was Miss America. But at times in life, I have been a broken mess in need of God’s grace just as much as the next person. Even though I have come to love and appreciate my body, skills and abilities, I still have bad days and still have to work on silencing my inner critic. That is because I’m not perfect and never will be. God uses our imperfections and we are all works in progress. Life is not about the destination, it is about the journey – which is a lot less scary when we realize the God of the entire universe created us, loves us, and is walking alongside us the entire way.

Kirsten later told her story in a White Chair Film:

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