Reclaiming Truth from Distortion: Overcoming Body Hatred

Kirsten HaglundI began struggling with an eating disorder at age 12. Like many mental health issues, there is a large stigma attached to eating and food issues, which include anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, and various combinations of the three. Many think eating issues are part of a phase, something people can just “get over.” Others think that only women struggle (not true—the number of men coming out about their struggles is rapidly increasing). Others think that eating issues are merely a vain attempt to achieve thinness, representing a vapid desire to emulate models and be adored and envied by friends and others. All of these assumptions about eating disorders are false.

There is increasing biological evidence that those who have a genetic history of eating or food issues, or other comorbidities like anxiety and depression in the family, have a greater likelihood of struggling with eating problems. Additionally, the reasons that an individual begins the downward spiral into anorexia, bulimia, or bingeing are many, varied, and complex.

While they may seem to be the result of a focus on outward appearance, disordered eating and exercise behaviors are the physical manifestation of deeper, more complicated emotional issues that require serious therapeutic and medical attention. Genetics load the gun; environment pulls the trigger.

I had a family history of depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsion (OCD). I also started ballet when I was 3 years old, and as a result, grew up in a very image-conscious environment that bred perfectionism on every level. The competitive nature of the dance overflowed into my academics, and I let rigidity, emotional suppression, and the constant striving toward a perfect ideal take over every part of my life. I’m not blaming ballet—I love the art form and it taught me many valuable skills. But for someone already vulnerable, once puberty hit and my body started changing, my perfectionism, obsession with performance, and preoccupation with being “good enough” transferred from the rehearsal studio and classroom to my body.

In addition to feeling the pressure to have certain body type for ballet, when I was 12, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. My brother struggled with OCD and a learning disability. Very suddenly, it became my responsibility to raise myself. In retrospect, I felt my world was crashing down around me.

Ballet had taught me to suppress my emotional responses, to gain control in whatever way possible. For me, to be in control was to keep pushing, keep trying harder, keep succeeding. I couldn’t possibly fail, for I had found an identity in ballet. Who was I, if not a successful ballet dancer? Or a successful student? Once my body began to change, I was terribly afraid I would grow “too large” to be a ballerina. If that happened, who would I be? At the onset, the descent into food restriction and anorexia seemed like “weight management,” but deep down, it was a manifestation of the fear associated with losing my identity and a self-worth crisis. I had set up control and regimentation as the solution.

I won’t go into great detail regarding the three years that I yo-yo dieted, restricted, and tried various weight-loss methods during my struggle with an eating disorder. I became obsessed with thinness as an identity, with food, weight, and calories, because I didn’t who I could be apart from my eating disorder. All the while, the “ED Voice,” or voice of the eating disorder, became loud and persistent, and the web of deception and lies that I believed about myself grew stronger.

The voice of the eating disorder is a helpful metaphor, because it exists outside of the identity of the person. In recovery and with the help of professional therapists, I learned to separate Kirsten, my true soul and self, from the eating disorder. I had to find my own voice, learn my own values, and discover my identity outside of a ballet dancer, a perfectionist, and a performer.

Recovery from eating issues, true freedom, comes through recognizing the lies we tell ourselves and replacing them with the truth. Once the power of truth takes root in your soul, your behaviors regarding food and exercise begin to change. When my own beliefs about who I was, my value, and my self-worth began to change, nourishment took on a whole new meaning, and my relationship with my body began to mend.

Lies I Told Myself

I am too much and I am not enough. I believed that my emotions, my desires, my hopes and dreams, and my opinions, were “too much” for those around me. However, the ED voice also told me, simultaneously, that I wasn’t funny enough, wasn’t pretty enough, wasn’t thin enough, engaging enough, smart enough, or good enough. To believe you are too much and not enough at the same time could paralyze anyone.

I will never be happy unless I am thin. When I began to believe this lie, it started to serve as a respite from the other difficult circumstances in my life. Focusing on thinness as happiness created a façade of simplicity, an illusion of protection from difficulty and strife. I found, however, that the thinner I became the more depressed, isolated, and unhappy I was.

I can control everything in my life. In fact, I learned that I could control almost nothing. The illusion of control helped me to feel as if I had purpose, identity. But the more I tried to control my food, weight, grades, friendships, approval, and validation from others, the more those things controlled me.

Failure is not an option. I believed failure was a virtual death sentence. No one should see my weaknesses or my flaws. To me, vulnerability was equivalent to worthlessness. When I did “messed up,” or failed to meet my own ridiculous expectations, this lie encouraged me to punish myself for daring to be human.

Truths I Now Believe

I am in the process of becoming the woman I was created to be. I may be “too much” for some, or “not enough” for others, and I will never be all things to all people. In therapy I learned, and each day I choose, to be more concerned with being my authentic self than being someone of whom others approve. I no longer perform for the validation of others; I am not a people pleaser. My faith is my life, and so for me personally, I have an “audience of one,” and that is my Heavenly Father.

Happiness is a choice, independent of circumstances. I am blessed. My body is beautiful the way God made it, not the way I had starved it to be. I know that happiness does not derive from thinness, from beauty, from good grades, or a fabulous career. Happiness is a choice; it is not determined by the hills and valleys of life, and certainly not by external appearance. I can choose to be happy. And I should do so, for I am incredibly blessed to have air in my lungs, legs to carry me places, a voice to speak, a wonderful family, and faithful friends. For all of these reasons, I choose joy, rather than discontentment.

Surrendering control is freedom. What tremendous freedom not to have to be in control of everything! I work hard, but ultimately I surrender my work, my relationships, and my circumstances to the sovereignty of God. So much happens in life that we cannot control, and that is okay. I do my best, and surrender the rest.

Trials and setbacks make me stronger and teach me perseverance. Growth does not come through success alone; it comes through the failure of making mistakes and “falling off of the horse.” I learned to believe that challenges build perseverance and character. A sincere passion of mine is to help others, and the things that make one helpful are vulnerability and openness, as well as the sharing of trials, pain, and weaknesses. This is what makes us human, and it is what propels us forward. We learn from our mistakes and, therefore, we grow.

It took two years of hard work in outpatient treatment and the tireless support of my family and friends to recover physically and emotionally from the battle with an eating disorder. I credit my treatment team, my family, and my God for rescuing me from the pit of my despair and giving me life, so that I could go on to college and go on to build a platform of helping and ministering to other women who have battled these same issues.

It was because of my strength in recovery and my support team that I was able to promote awareness of eating disorders as my platform during my year of service as Miss America in 2008. Today, I continue to travel and share my story at universities and for outreach events as a Community Relations Specialist for Timberline Knolls; I write a blog; and I appear regularly on Fox, CNN, HuffPost Live, HLN, and other news programs to speak about women and body image issues. I am incredibly blessed to do this work, to have my life back, and to have full recovery, but it didn’t come without hard work. I make the decision every day to believe truth, rather than lies. Because of that, I have life and an authentic self. It is the truth, in the end, that sets you free.

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  • Tina

    Tina

    July 18th, 2013 at 11:19 PM

    It’s so good to have some like you come out and speak about eating issues. Young women are pushing themselves towards what can potentially be disasters with their eating habit. My own sister suffered from this in her growing up years.

    No thinness was good enough and no cutting down on food was enough for her. She refused help and although nothing big happened thankfully, I am still afraid her thoughts can lead her to making mistakes in other areas of her life. She has a beautiful little daughter now and I’m afraid the child will pick up a similar behavior especially towards eating.

    What can be done to prevent this? Thank you

  • taryn P.

    taryn P.

    July 19th, 2013 at 4:17 AM

    Thank you for your story. It shows such truth and grace to be so honest and forthright with your personal struggles and I know that any reader out there who has struggled with this very issue can take something away from it.

  • maryanne

    maryanne

    July 19th, 2013 at 11:20 AM

    Wow this is such an insitful piece. thank you for sharing Kirsten and talking about eating disorders in public like this. So many of us keep quiet about it. you are a true role model.

  • QQ

    QQ

    July 20th, 2013 at 1:55 AM

    I think young ladies need to know and read something like this from those they idolize.Its often only the super thin frames and attractive images that they see and not the hard work and photoshopping behind all of that.Seeing the truth once in a while wouldnt hurt.

  • Nan

    Nan

    July 20th, 2013 at 5:14 AM

    It’s often unbelievable to me that a women so bright and beautiful can look in the mirror and be digusted with what she sees. I think that most of us would feel so lucky to be as beautiful as you are, but I also see that when you are in the throes of ED then there is no way for you to believe that. You have your own inner voices and demoms to wrestle with that most of us don’t understand but I read your story and realize that this is your truth from your perspective and it is not up to me to judge that, only to offer support in the ways that I would know how. So glad to read that it sounds like you are now in a much better place, and I hope that others struggling with this will find your story and will make it through to the other side healthy and happy as well.

  • Beth

    Beth

    July 22nd, 2013 at 4:27 AM

    Sounds like there was the perfect storm of conditions that got you to that place. You endured a family history, you were a naturally competitive person, you were in that image conscious venue of dance. . . I guess that all of these things combined in you to cause this self loathing whereas another person may have been able to handle it.

  • P.D.

    P.D.

    July 22nd, 2013 at 4:23 PM

    Ive wondered if eatin disorders are more common in beauty pagent girls? It seems like a cut throat world and that girls might try anything to be skinny and pretty enough to win

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