TAMPA — She sat before them, shoulders back, a wine-colored pashmina accenting her olive green dress.
The picture of poise, and the girl next door.
But former Miss America Kirsten Haglund had something in common with the clients of University of South Florida Hope House for Eating Disorders. She was one of them.
With help and perseverance, she told them Thursday, they, too, can overcome their potentially deadly fixations with weight and appearance.
"It's a problem, and it's an illness," Haglund said. "It's not your fault. It's not anyone's fault.
"Everyone struggles with something."
Haglund, 20, made eating disorders her platform, then a yearlong campaign after winning the national title as Miss Michigan in 2008. She relinquished the crown in January, but has continued the effort while pursuing acting work in Los Angeles.
Her Kirsten Haglund Foundation provides financial aid to families seeking treatment for disorders from anorexia to bulimia. And Haglund promotes the need for research into causes and treatment.
That brought her to Hope House in South Tampa, which for 2 1/2 years has provided free outreach and supportive intervention groups for people and their families struggling with eating disorders.
Haglund knows the topic well.
As she has described many times in the past year-plus, Haglund went on her first "diet" as a 12-year-old ballerina responding to a changing body. The more weight she lost, the less happy she felt.
Her weight plummeted, and by the time she turned 16 her parents had turned to professional help. Haglund ultimately realized she was seeking to fill an emotional hole by obsessing about her weight.
"There's always something underlying it that is emotional," she said.
She dances, runs and does Pilates now to keep in shape, but said she can no longer participate in ballet because it serves as a "trigger." Her spiritual faith helps fill the hole.
The half-dozen or so young women with her nodded at times, smiled at others. Each shared her own struggles.
Ariane Lowe, 27, was 11 when she went on her first diet, a fixation with eating that worsened with family problems in the years since. Her mother died a few years ago, and "it's been a downhill struggle ever since," she said.
Like Haglund, 26-year-old violinist Leah Rothe also danced ballet. She quit around the same time she graduated from college and her focus "shifted from what my body can do to what my body is."
Karla Olsen, 21, told Haglund how, if she doesn't respond immediately to her hunger, she just doesn't eat. She rings up large bills on smoothies, because she doesn't feel as bad when she drinks her meals.
"It's helpful to be here and see other people who feel like I do," Olsen said.
Haglund said she sees no irony in a former beauty queen telling young women not to obsess about their bodies. Rothe, the violinist, said she could empathize with the pressure that comes with a need to stay fit.
If she had her druthers, Haglund said there would be no swimsuit contest in the annual pageant.
"It's not about beauty to me," said Haglund. "It's not just about having a beautiful bikini body.
"It's about the message and affecting positive change."