'Fat' comment report highlights beauty queen body issues

Nina Davuluri, Miss New York 2013 Miss America
Nina Davuluri, Miss New York 2013

Update: Nina Davuluri became the first Indian-American to be crowned Miss America. She beat out 52 contestants on Sept. 15 in Atlantic City's Boardwalk Hall. 

Original: 

Trouble in beauty queen land: Just days before the 2013 Miss America Pageant, Nina Davuluri — the current Miss New York —is being accused of making some scathing comments on the reigning Miss America's weight. 

On Friday, the New York Post's Page Six claimed that Davuluri was caught on tape after her Miss New York win calling Mallory Hagan "fat as f---."

Both Davuluri and representatives for Miss America quickly denied Page Six's claims — after all, this did appear in a gossip column. In a statement to TODAY.com, the Miss America Organization said, "We have been informed by the Miss New York State Scholarship Program that this report was fully investigated by their office in July and found there was no validity to the story." 

Still, the report highlights the intense body image issues present in the pageant world, especially at the national level. 

Davuluri herself has spoken openly about her struggle with bulimia in college, telling TODAY.com that while winning the crown on Sunday would be nice, her real goal is to use her public platform to promote healthy eating and realistic beauty standards. She said that even her family had difficulty comprehending her disease. 

“My parents are from India and they just weren’t really exposed to eating disorders growing up,” says Davuluri, the first Indian-American to serve as Miss New York. “They weren’t aware of it.”

Davuluri’s parents are hardly alone when it comes to not understanding the dark and disabling world of eating disorders like bulimia, anorexia and binge eating.

“As a society, we praise everybody for how skinny they are without knowing what’s inside,” says Lynn Grefe, president and CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). “But [an eating disorder] is like an earthquake running through the body. It can destroy your ability to have children. Ruin your kidneys. We’ll see women in their 30s with the bones of an 80-year-old because of osteoporosis.”

Nearly 30 million Americans will have an eating disorder at some point in their life – approximately 20 million women and 10 million men, says Grefe. And a small 2003 study found that out of 131 female beauty pageant contestants, over one quarter had been told -- or perceived -- that they had an eating disorder. In addition, a 2010 study shows the average BMI of Miss America winners has decreased from 22 to 16.9 in the last 80 years. A normal BMI is classified as between 18.5 and 24.9.

Traits like anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsiveness can make people more vulnerable, as well as activities and sports that focus heavily on body image like ballet, cheerleading, dance, beauty pageants, wrestling and boxing, says Grefe.

“When your body is a focus of your career and there’s a weight standard, there’s a lot of pressure,” she says. “We’ve had quite a few beauty queens contact us to be ambassadors.”

LAS VEGAS - JANUARY 24:  Miss America 2008 Kirsten Haglund appears during the 2009 Miss America Pageant at the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino on Jan... Ethan Miller / Getty Images
Kirsten Haglund, 24, who was crowned Miss America in 2008, said she began dieting at age 12 and soon developed full-blown anorexia which went on for three years before she got help. She used her platform as Miss America to advocate for increased awareness of eating disorders.

The Miss America Organization does not have a policy relating specifically to eating disorders, but “has always emphasized healthy lifestyles and healthy nutrition for the young women who compete in our program,” according to chief executive Sharon Pearce.

“Our program fully embraces the totality of each individual contestant,” she says. “They serve as great role models and together, we continue to encourage healthy lifestyles.”

Kirsten Haglund, 24, who was crowned Miss America in 2008, said she began dieting at age 12 and soon developed full-blown anorexia which went on for three years before she got help.

“Growing up, I was a perfectionist and a ballet dancer and many ballet dancers struggle with eating disorders,” says Haglund, who is now an ambassador for NEDA. “I modeled my behavior after them.”

Haglund says she restricted her calorie intake to such an extent she stopped having her period. She also experienced drastic behavioral changes.

“I lost friends and I was ‘hangry’ all the time,” she says. “You’re in a horrible mood because you’re always hungry. You can’t sleep or maintain concentration and focus. It’s a horrible, horrible life.”

After two years of nutritional therapy and counseling, she became “healthy and stable” and decided to compete in a local pageant in order to earn scholarship money for college. That decision eventually led to her being crowned Miss America where she used her platform to advocate for increased awareness of eating disorders, both in the U.S. and abroad.

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 17:  Miss America 2011 Teresa Scanlan visits "Fox & Friends" at FOX Studios on January 17, 2011 in New York City.  (Photo by Sl... Slaven Vlasic / Getty Images
Miss America 2011 Teresa Scanlan used her role to educate young women about eating disorders.

Haglund isn’t the only Miss America to speak out about the disease. Teresa Scanlan, who was crowned in 2011, also used her position to educate others about eating disorders.

According to NEDA, 35 percent of normal dieters go on to pathological dieting; 20 to 25 percent of those go on to develop partial or full-syndrome eating disorders. Even more disturbing, over half of teenage girls and nearly one third of teenage boys skip meals, go on fasts, smoke, vomit or take laxatives in order to control their weight.

Now on the other side of treatment, Haglund is careful in how she presents her story. Haglund won’t offer any specifics regarding her anorexic behavior, worried that it might provide “thinspiration” to young girls willing to risk their health in order to meet unrealistic ideals. And Davuluri is equally reticent, refusing to even reveal her weight.

Grefe says that’s a very smart strategy.

“That’s called sharing your story responsibly,” she says. “You should never talk about weight, size, what you ate, or what your behaviors were. Somebody who is struggling will look at those numbers and say, ‘I can do better than that.’ It’s a mental disorder and there’s a huge competition.”

And that competition, Haglund says, gets more intense as the women reach the national level. 

"At the local and state level, it's a lot less intense. A lot less girls are career pageant girls, so to speak," she says. "At those lower levels, everyone is pretty comfortable with their body, doing it for fun, not real intense about it. Once you get to the level of Miss America, it's a much different game. Girls are very serious about it." 

Tattoos to Tourette's: Four Miss America hopefuls to watch

  • Slideshow Photos

    Image: Miss California Carrie Prejean

    Beauty queen scandals

    They may be beautiful, but the competition can get ugly. From blackmail to sabotage, check out the underside of the pageant circuit.

  • Beauty queen scandals

    of

    Miss Delaware Teen USA -

    They may be beautiful, but the competition can get ugly. From blackmail to sabotage, check out the underside of the pageant circuit.

    First up: Melissa King, Miss Delaware Teen USA, resigned her crown on Feb. 26, 2013, after a sex video featuring a woman resembling her surfaced online.
    @Melissa_M_King\Twitter
  • Beauty queen scandals

    of

    Called Miss USA 'rigged' -

    After Miss Pennsylvania 2012, Sheena Monnin, spoke out on Facebook against the Miss Universe organization in June, calling it "trashy" and "rigged," co-owner Donald Trump threatened a lawsuit.
    Miss Universe Organization
  • Beauty queen scandals

    of

    Facing DUI charges -

    Former Miss USA Rima Fakih, pictured here on April 11, 2012 as she faces DUI charges in district court in Highland Park, Mich. Fakih pleaded no contest in the case, and on May 9 she was sentenced to probation and community service for driving under the influence and getting pulled over with an open Champagne bottle in her car.
    AP, Reuters
  • Beauty queen scandals

    of

    A transgender Miss Universe? -

    Jenna Talackova, a transgender beauty queen, protested the decision by pageant representatives to drop her from the Miss Universe Canada competition. She was finally given the green light to go by the Donald Trump-led Miss Universe Organization. The 23-year-old will, however, need to prove that she meets the "legal gender recognition requirements of Canada," according to local media.
    Mario Anzuoni / Reuters
  • Beauty queen scandals

    of

    Miss California 1992 -

    They may be beautiful, but the competition can get ugly. From blackmail to sabotage, check out the underside of the pageant circuit.

    First up: Miss California 1992 Shannon Marketic, center, was accused of stealing almost $90 in beauty products from a Target store in August 2010. Marketic, 38, denies stealing the items and says they rolled in the cart and landed underneath her purse.
    AP, Denton Police Department
  • Beauty queen scandals

    of

    Former Miss California USA 2009 -

    Hosts Billy Bush and Nadine Velazquez listen as Miss California Carrie Prejean makes her highly publicized answer to a question from judge Perez Hilton about legalizing same-sex marriage during the Miss USA Pageant in Las Vegas on April 19, 2009. The controversy grew in ensuing weeks when Prejean became the spokesperson for a national group opposing same-sex unions, after which racy photos of her surfaced. Prejean blamed people opposing her views for the release of the photos. She eventually surrendered her crown after pageant officials accused her of missing events, an allegation she denied.
    Eric Jamison / AP
  • Beauty queen scandals

    of

    Miss Universe 2008 -

    Crowned Miss Universe in July 2008, Venezuela's Dayana Mendoza kept her crown despite risque photos that showed the beauty queen topless, though covering most of her chest. The Miss Universe president said that Mendoza’s photographs had "artistic beauty."
    Evan Agostini / AP
  • Beauty queen scandals

    of

    Miss Washington 2008 -

    Elyse Umemoto, Miss Washington and second runner-up in this year's Miss America pageant, was shown flipping off the camera while wearing her crown, playing beer pong, posing in her bra and making suggestive hand signs on TMZ.com.
    Jacob Andrzejczak / Getty Images
  • Beauty queen scandals

    of

    Miss South Florida Fair 2008 -

    Jessica Wittenbrink, who was crowned Miss South Florida Fair 2008, says her evening gown was smeared with lipstick during the competition.
    Uma Sanghvi / Palm Beach Post via Zuma Press
  • Beauty queen scandals

    of

    Miss Puerto Rico 2007 -

    Ingrid Marie Rivera smiles during a beauty pageant in Santurce, Puerto Rico. Rivera beat 29 rivals to become the island's 2008 Miss Universe contestant, despite applying makeup and wearing evening gowns that had been coated with pepper spray, pageant spokesman Harold Rosario said.
    Ricardo Daz Serrano / AP
  • Beauty queen scandals

    of

    Miss New Jersey 2007 -

    Amy Polumbo was crowned Miss New Jersey 2007. An anonymous person threatened to reveal "scandalous" photos of the beauty queen, but Polumbo refused to cave in to the blackmail. She took the incident public and revealed the photos herself on TODAY.
    Donald B. Kravitz / AP
  • Beauty queen scandals

    of

    Miss USA 2006 -

    Tara Conner, representing Kentucky, won the Miss USA title in 2006 and moved to New York City where she partied in clubs and drank despite being underage. Donald Trump gave her a reprieve, allowing her to retain the title after she agreed to enter rehab and undergo drug testing.
    Chris Gardner / AP
  • Beauty queen scandals

    of

    Miss South Carolina Teen USA -

    Lauren Caitlin Upton, Miss South Carolina, became a Internet sensation with her nonsensical answer to a question during the Miss Teen USA competition in August 2007. The 18-year-old got a chance to redeem herself on TODAY when she was again asked why one-fifth of Americans can't locate the U.S. on a map.
    Patrick Prather / Miss Universe via AP
  • Beauty queen scandals

    of

    Miss France 2008 -

    Despite racy photos that appeared recently in a gossip magazine, Miss France 2008 Valerie Begue will keep her crown, but will not compete in the Miss World or Miss Universe pageants.
    Francois Mori / AP
  • Beauty queen scandals

    of

    Miss Nevada USA 2006 -

    Katie Rees was stripped of her title in 2006 after racy photos of her appeared on the Internet. Some of the photos showed her kissing other young women, exposing her breasts and pulling down her pants to show her thong underwear. Afterwards, Rees signed a two-year, $2 million-plus deal to host a variety show at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. In April, Rees agreed to pay fines for five misdemeanor traffic violations in exchange for prosecutors dropping a charge of resisting arrest.
    AP
  • Beauty queen scandals

    of

    Miss New Jersey USA 2007 -

    Ashley Harder held the title of Miss New Jersey USA 2007 and was set to compete in the Miss USA pageant before she became pregnant and voluntarily stepped down. Runner-up Erin Abrahamson assumed the title.
    Marcin Szczepanski / Courier-Post via AP
  • Beauty queen scandals

    of

    Miss California USA 2008 -

    Christina Silva, 24, was declared Miss California USA in November only to have her crown revoked days later. Pageant official say a mix-up in tallying the votes led to the wrong woman being crowned. Silva, who is Hispanic, is suing the pageant, alleging rigging and racial bias.
    Damian Dovarganes / AP
  • Beauty queen scandals

    of

    Miss Great Britain 2006 -

    Danielle Lloyd was stripped of her title after it was revealed that she had posed nude for Playboy and amid accusations that she was dating one of the judges at the time of the contest. Lloyd went on to star in the British reality show Celebrity Big Brother in 2007 where she and other contestants were accused of bullying and making racist comments about Indian actress Shilpa Shetty.
    Guang Niu / Getty Images
  • Beauty queen scandals

    of

    Miss United States Teen 2003 -

    Former Miss Oregon Teen USA Kari Ann Peniche was stripped of her title in 2003 after she posed nude for Playboy magazine. Peniche appeared as a patient on the VH1 television show Sex Rehab with Dr. Drew but was involuntarily discharged.

    In 2009, a racy video of Peniche, "Grey’s Anatomy" star Eric Dane and his wife Rebecca Gayheart was leaked. The 12-minute video was said to be shot inside Peniche’s apartment, and within it, Gayheart said she was high.
    Albert L. Ortega / WireImage
  • Beauty queen scandals

    of

    Miss Louisiana Teen USA 2008 -

    Miss Louisiana Teen USA 2008 Lindsey Evans was stripped of her crown 10 days before completing her reign. She and her friends skipped out on a $46 restaurant bill, and Evans left behind her purse, which contained a bag of marijuana. The women were arrested for theft and drug possession when they returned to retrieve the purse.
    Splash News
  • Beauty queen scandals

    of

    Miss Universe 2002 -

    Former Miss Russia Oxana Fedorova was fired less than four months into her reign for missing too many events. She was a law student at the time and complained that being Miss Universe interfered with her education. "I never had any intention of abandoning my university work," she said.

    The pageant president said contestants know Miss Universe is a full-time job and that winners spend 80 percent of their time traveling as goodwill ambassadors.
    Dita Alangkara / AP
  • Beauty queen scandals

    of

    Miss America 1984 -

    Vanessa Williams, representing New York, became the first black Miss America. She had to resign when nude photos taken before her beauty contest victories were published in Penthouse. The crown was given to Suzette Charles, who's also black. Williams later became a successful singer with such hits as "Save the Best for Last," and "Colors of the Wind." Some of her movie credits include "Eraser," "Soul Food" and "Dance with Me." She currently plays the scheming fashion editor on "Ugly Betty."
    Yvonne Hemsey / Getty Images
  • Beauty queen scandals

    of

    Miss World 1973 -

    Marjorie Wallace was dethroned about four months into her reign, after she was accused of dating too many high-profile men, including professional soccer player George Best and singer Tom Jones. The organizers said the first woman from the U.S. to win the title hadn't maintained Miss World's reputation. She later became a television host for "Good Morning Los Angeles" and "Entertainment Tonight."
    Evening Standard / Everning Standard via Getty Images
TOP