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Slice of Life: Relinquishing a pageant title to promote a body image awareness campaign

Thursday - 5/9/2013, 9:09am  ET

Slice_of_Life_-_Kaitlyn_Wozniak3.JPG
Former Miss D.C. U.S. International Kaitlyn Dinneh Wozniak overcame an eating disorder and used her title to promote a campaign of body image awareness. (WTOP/Hoai-Tran Bui)

Hoai-Tran Bui, special to wtop.com

WASHINGTON - It's a story many women in the beauty industry have lived to tell: A beauty pageant contestant struggles with an eating disorder and enters a rehabilitation program.

However, the former Miss D.C. U.S. International Kaitlyn Dinneh Wozniak managed to overcome her own eating disorder, a condition known as anorexia nervosa, and use her title to promote a campaign of body image awareness. Wozniak handed her title over to Vanessa Nagengast on May 6, but continues to promote body image awareness.

WTOP sat down with Wozniak, a graduating senior at American University, to talk about her struggle with her eating disorder and she says the pageant life didn't cause it.

How did you get into pageants?

Well, I have done pageants since I was a kid, so I was competing as a toddler. Then I took a little hiatus and started competing again when I was 14 years old and competed in several Miss U.S.A. pageants -- Miss Maryland U.S.A., Miss Teen U.S.A. -- for a few years.

Then I got my title of Miss D.C. U.S. International last April, and just spent a year promoting my platform of eating disorder awareness.

You said you started pageantry when you were very young. Do you think that fed into the eating disorders that you're now campaigning against?

You know, that's a question I get a lot. I'm not sure that that's necessarily what did it. There's no way of knowing. There is always a genetic and biological component that goes into it. You know the comment saying in the field is "Genetics load the gun, society pulls the trigger." And I stopped competing as a kid when I was maybe 4 or 5, so I took a long time off before really having a concept of body image for that to really affect me.

I think what really did it was kind of my insecure demeanor as a kid, a lot of things going on in my family that I didn't have control over and my Type A personality that really were the main contributing factors, as opposed to pageantry because my disorder developed before I was even a teen competing in pageants again.

So pageantry to me has always been my motivation to recover and be a better person and be healthy, because had I not gotten myself to a healthy weight and maintained my healthy behaviors, my parents weren't allowing me to compete.

So for me, it's always been kind of the opposite of what's expected. It's not really what caused it, or pulled the trigger, so to speak, it's really what kind of helped me to get to the place I am today.

So tell me about your struggle with eating disorders, I know it's a rough subject. But how did it get started and how did you struggle with it?

I was 13 when it developed, I would say. I hit puberty very early, in 8th grade. I was always very insecure as an adolescent, as a child, and I think that for me hitting puberty and developing these curves, and looking like a woman before a lot of other people caused me to get a lot of attention from people.

Whether it was guys who appreciated it, or women or girls who thought that it was something to be criticized, or ridiculed, or mocked or whatever. So in either sense, I had these conflicting messages, neither of which I wanted because I didn't want the attention. I really would have preferred to be left alone and go unnoticed through the whole of high school.

But I was having these conflicting messages and I didn't know how to feel about my body, and it was a little too much for me, it was very uncomfortable and I felt like… you know, everyone around me was dieting -- the Atkins diet was all the craze, friends, family members, everyone was doing it -- and I thought, "Ok, I'll do this and I'll lose some weight, and everybody's fine. I'll lose five pounds and that'll be enough."

I lost the five pounds and it was never enough. It spiraled out of control, and before I knew it, I was skipping meals, over exercising and having distorted thoughts of food in my body. And I started losing my hair, and I lost my menstrual cycle, and passed out in school and wasn't able to play sports.

And all these things came with it all. And it was never anything to do with food, because I loved food and I thought about it all the time, but I wasn't allowing myself to enjoy it the way it should have been and the way that I do now, because I wanted to have that control and my body was the only thing I knew how to control. Everything else around me was kind of being run by outside forces.

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