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This Is Us Star Chrissy Metz: I Was in Weight Watchers When I Was 11

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Chrissy Metz sees a lot of herself in Kate Pearson, the character she plays on This Is Us.

The actress tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue that she has known the pain that 8-year-old Kate (played in flashbacks by Mackenzie Hancsicsak) felt during a recent episode as she learned to be ashamed of her body for the first time and began what would become a lifelong struggle with body image.

Metz says her size “was always something I was cognizant of. I’ve had pictures of when I was 3 and 4 years old, and I’ve always been chubby.”

The actress, who is now 36 just like her character, says many scenes showing mom Rebecca (Mandy Moore) struggling with what message to send to her young daughter “really resonate.”

“I remember being at Weight Watchers at, like, 11 years old and my mom just trying to figure it out for me,” says Metz. “It’s one of those things where it’s heartbreaking because, as a parent, you want your child to have the best life possible and you want them to be protected and in this little bubble where everybody finds them to be beautiful and perfect and their lives to be amazing. But that’s not always the case.”

  • For more from Chrissy Metz, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

Metz recalls being bullied for her looks for much of her life. Even though she was physically active, rollerskating and riding bikes around her suburban Miami neighborhood with her four brothers and sisters, she sometimes fell back on unhealthy patterns.

“I would not eat,” she admits. “And then of course I would get so hungry I would binge … and it was difficult because my parents were like, ‘I don’t understand, if you’re not really eating, why are you gaining weight?’ I would be at one of my good friend’s house and her mom would literally make us a tray of brownies and split it down the middle, and we would go to town.”

Courtesy Cheryl McLean
Courtesy Cheryl McLean

After years of facing criticism both personally and professionally (including getting the offensive advice from a casting director that she was “too attractive to play the plus-sized girl”), Metz says she reached a turning point at her latest milestone birthday.

“When I turned 30, I had this epiphany that my life is my own and my choices are my own,” she says.

Going on “a bit of a spiritual journey,” she decided to put aside others’ opinions and to “focus on who I am, business or no business, actress or no actress. And things just kind of started falling into place. There definitely was a shift.”

Metz has found breakout status in This Is Us for her honest, nuanced performance, and her body-positive message has impacted viewers “so far beyond acting and so far beyond my dreams.”

Going to set each day “doesn’t feel like work at all because it’s just so exciting and wonderful,” she adds.

And even “frightening” days like when she had to strip down for a vulnerable scene in which Kate weighed herself naked have taken on greater significance because of how she’s connecting with viewers.

Telling this story is “about the bigger picture and not just about my feelings,” says Metz. “I just feel really grateful that I can pursue my dreams and also reach people in ways that I never expected.”

This Is Us airs Tuesdays (9 p.m. ET) on NBC.