I absolutely love spring. I have learned to really appreciate the spring season since I moved to Atlanta, Georgia. Having grown up outside of Detroit, Michigan, I adore living where the winters are mild (and comparatively short), and spring is a long, lovely season. If you can stand the few weeks of pollen, the South is the place to be when buds bloom. The birds are beginning to chirp and the air is starting to warm up – leaves are slowly coming back out onto the trees and anticipation of spring abounds.
I think we love spring because it gives us a feeling of hope – rebirth, reawakening, and resurrection. Out of the dark and the cold of winter, every year, without fail, colors and life are born anew. I believe that subconsciously, this anticipated change of season resonates deeply within every soul as it is the metaphor of life. Seasons change, dark periods come, and new beginnings arise out of challenge and storms. This is a metaphor that is particularly relevant to those of us who have struggled with eating disorders, addiction or anxiety, and have emerged from that struggle victorious and free, full of new life; a beautiful blossom of color and fragrance.
To introduce myself, my name is Kirsten. I am a precious daughter of God. I am a friend, fiancée, sister, believer, advocate, speaker and listener. I also happened to be blessed with the title of Miss America 2008. As such, I traveled the country for a year, 20,000 miles a month representing an organization of women competing for college scholarships. During that time, I advocated for greater awareness of eating disorders. The reason? Aside from the aforementioned labels, I also am recovered from an eating disorder, and for a significant period of my life, that struggle threatened to define, and possibly end, my life. The trap, the despair of the illness is something I never wanted anyone else to experience. I wanted people to know what women deal with. I wanted the fashion and beauty and diet industries to be held accountable for the messages they send young women. I wanted to encourage and empower the generation of young women that they had the choice to define themselves based on something more than what they looked like.
My battle with anorexia began at age 12, when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and the pressure of being in classical ballet seven days a week began to take its toll. For a young girl with perfectionistic tendencies and a desire to perform for approval, these factors created a toxic environment, and the desire to be in control, successful, perfect and beautiful, became all consuming.
I don’t have to tell anyone who has experienced something similar what the lowest of low feels like. You already know. Thankfully, I had wonderful parents, then and now, who loved me too much to watch me continue to run down the path of destructive behaviors in pursuit of an ideal I would never reach. They took me to the doctor and then forced me to go to outpatient treatment with my treatment team of a doctor, nutritionist and psychologist. I sometimes wish my parents had known about residential treatment options and places like Timberline Knolls. It is a sign of the lack of good information throughout our society that parents don’t have a clue about their treatment options (SO many don’t). For the first six months of treatment, I was in complete denial, and convinced that I could fool everyone that I was getting better, so that I could stop going to the doctor and get back to being a good ‘anorexic.’ My mind was in such a compromised state from being undernourished – I lived in fear. The fear had created a deceitful monster of a human being, and everyone saw it … but me.
To far oversimplify a very complicated journey, there came a day of reckoning, so to speak, when I got so tired of being tired. I got tired of worrying. I was so tired of following all of the “rules” my eating disorder had created, and these rules never translated into happiness, comfort, safety, or security. The only thing they ever provided was isolation, depression and anxiety. I decided that day to start working with the treatment team. I decided that they may actually know more than me. I realized that I needed to seriously change.
After another year and a half of intensive outpatient care, I became a new person. I pulled back from ballet and decided that I would apply for college. I began to heal relationships that I had severely damaged. I began to get involved with my youth group at church and read my Bible. A new hope was born within my heart, and new desires. Every person’s story and struggle is different. The reasons and environments that create these issues vary widely. But this has been my journey. I had to find an identity outside of ballet. I had to let go of control and trust in a loving, faithful God. I had to learn to stop striving for a goal I could never achieve, and learn that the process of creating a fruitful, beautiful peaceful life is so much more important than pleasing people.
Fast forward a year: I decided to compete in a local pageant, Miss Oakland County, in my home state of Michigan. At the age of 17, I had just graduated from high school and entered purely for the purpose of scholarships to supplement tuition costs. I really could not believe it when I won. One year later, I represented my county at the state pageant, and again, to my surprise, I won Miss Michigan. I had to leave college in order to do the full-time job of Miss Michigan; 6 months later, I found myself standing on stage in Las Vegas, being given the title of Miss America. While most girls compete for many years and really want ‘the crown,’ I was only really in it for the scholarship money. Of course, once I got the ‘job’ of Miss America, I saw the benefit was far more than the money. There was the networking, the traveling, the people, and the chance to give young women a voice and stand up for a cause that I really believed in: advocating for awareness of eating disorders and encouraging young women to value themselves based on more than what they look like. With that job came a new recovery realization: that the winters in our lives serve others in the same way they serve us. We grow through recovery, and then gain the strength to comfort, to fight for, to encourage others. We give because we have been broken and bruised and have tasted hope and triumph. The job of Miss America inspired me to use my experience to help others in the best way, whatever way, I could.
I had some incredible experiences as Miss America. I visited 48 states, and did everything from sign autographs at Wal-Mart in the middle of nowhere in Alabama, to attend the Inauguration of Barack Obama. I spoke in front of and lobbied Congress on Capitol Hill for the passage of Mental Health Parity, which passed in September of 2008. I appeared on every entertainment news show, red carpet, and on CNN, FOX, HLN more times than I can count. It was an incredible year — but the most amazing and wonderful work was speaking to women from all walks of life, and especially little girls about body image, about what true beauty is and encouraging women to choose to believe the truth rather than a lie: that thinness doesn’t equal happiness. You don’t have to starve yourself or diet your way to success. A woman is an incredibly valuable soul, and worth so much more than the measure of her waistline.
This is just the story of one journey – one woman’s springtime. I am so beyond thankful and blessed for the experience of a Winter in my life. I do not expect that life from here on out will be Winter-free. One lesson of recovery is that just because you beat your eating disorder, your alcohol addiction, your approval addiction or paralyzing anxiety doesn’t mean that from here on out, life is perfect. Far from it. I have sad days, everyone does. External circumstances, family issues, life in general is sometimes hard and unpredictable and doesn’t always go the way I want it. But because of my recovery journey and the support of wonderful people in my life, and because of an amazing, all-powerful Savior I know that no matter what life brings I can face it without fear – and that is the most freeing thing in the world. To try to be fearless requires trust, letting go, and elements of not knowing, and being okay with that. It is a choice I have to make every morning. I’m so thankful that I have practiced the skill of doing that. I am so thankful that a bitter winter has yielded to a beautiful spring.
I will be blogging for Timberline Knolls about my own journey and thoughts, commenting on interesting media developments, and offering insight into the fashion, beauty, diet and ‘girl’ worlds. But I want to start out encouraging you (and myself, always good!), that there is always hope. There is always the promise of spring. It does not stay winter forever, and with the help and support of loving people, incredible professionals at places like Timberline Knolls, women do get better. They do win the battle, and they do go on to live incredible, full, productive and inspiring lives. Rejoice in the blooms and the birds as they herald the beginning of this new and beautiful season. New birth and new life is on its way; spring is in the air.