Anyone who has ever been in the grip of (or had a loved one afflicted with) an eating disorder knows that it is an intensely personal and private struggle. In fact, one of the many things that make eating disorders so dangerous and life-threatening is that their sufferers tend to shroud their internal struggle under a veil of secrecy, making it difficult for even those closest to them to recognize the presence of the disease, let alone appreciate its severity, before it reaches a crisis stage. Part of that secrecy stems from the disease process itself. As a rule, eating disorders are inherently isolating. Another part likely stems from fear (i.e., the compromised mind’s irrational desire to stave off the treatment that almost certainly will result from full disclosure). Still another aspect driving the silence is the social stigma that some still inexplicably and ignorantly attach to eating disorders. Finally, but no less significantly, the silence emanates from the almost paralyzing sense of shame and guilt felt by those afflicted with the disease.
Imagine then how much COURAGE it takes for a 19 year old girl to stand on a stage in Las Vegas, Nevada in the midst of one of the premiere beauty pageants in the world (i.e., Miss America) and, before a live audience and a worldwide television viewership numbering in the tens of millions, not only publicly acknowledge, but embrace her personal struggle with anorexia, while adopting eating disorder education and awareness as her platform. Why in the world would anyone do something like that? Well, perhaps it’s best to let Kirsten Haglund, Miss America 2008, explain the decision in her own words (which I’ve taken the liberty of paraphrasing from a recent interview Kirsten gave at Emory University):
“I came to realize that it’s helpful for others to hear someone, especially someone in the public spotlight, who has gone through a major battle or had to struggle [like I did as a young girl with anorexia] admit that they aren’t perfect. I think that’s a really important message for people to hear. The more I shared the clearer it became to me that my willingness to be open and vulnerable – to tell my story – allowed others to find their voice and have the COURAGE to tell their story. I discovered that vulnerability is a really tough place to be, but it is a really powerful place. And I think it’s particularly important for girls, like me, to be able to stand up and say, ‘Hey, I’m vulnerable,’ ‘I messed up’ or ‘I have this issue’ and that’s okay, because it’s my imperfections and my flaws that make me who I am. That’s even more powerful than being perfect!”
Suffice it to say, despite only being 24 years old, Kirsten already has gone to great lengths to use the power of her vulnerability to effect positive change in the world, beginning with: (1) the creation of the Kirsten Haglund Foundation (http://www.kirstenhaglund.org), whose mission includes raising funds for treatment scholarships to those afflicted with eating disorders who lack the resources necessary to access potentially lifesaving care, while simultaneously enlisting the help of individuals, organizations, and businesses in raising awareness and provide hope for families and those waging the war on eating disorders; (2) her tireless advocacy for eating disorder awareness and fund-raising, in her role as Community Relations Specialist for Timberline Knolls (www.timberlineknolls.com); (3) her support of legislative initiatives aimed at bringing parity in the insurance coverage available to eating disorder sufferers; (4) her work on behalf of the Children’s Miracle Network; and (5) her involvement with One Hundred Days (www.onehundreddays.org), a non-profit organization based in Atlanta, which is committed to helping to meet the physical, spiritual and emotional needs of the people of Rwanda, including the construction of a hospital serving the estimated 1,200,000 children, who have lost one or both parents as result of conflict, poverty or HIV/AIDS.
There are very few people on the planet I respect and admire more than Kirsten Haglund. Candidly, I’m not entirely sure how such a young woman (17 at the time she entered the local pageant that ultimately would lead to her crowning as Miss America) could be so COURAGEOUS, so unselfish and, now at 24 (and soon to be a graduate of Emory University), so tireless in giving of herself to inspire and bring hope to others. Not only those in the eating disorder community, but society as a whole, already owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to this remarkable young woman. I urge you to begin “repaying” it, by learning more about her, by sharing her (and her story) with the young people in your life as an example of how to be a difference-maker and, if the opportunity arises, by supporting Kirsten in her ongoing efforts to be a much-needed instrument of positive change in the world.