By Michelle Tan Charlotte Triggs
February 16, 2009 12:00 PM

Jessica Simpson strutted across the stage at the University of Virginia’s John Paul Jones Arena last week, belting out hits like “These Boots Are Made for Walkin'” and waving a Dallas Cowboys jersey in honor of her boyfriend, quarterback Tony Romo. Eventually she kicked off her gold stilettos and jumped around in bare feet. The high-energy display prompted Jay DeMarcus, the bassist for headliners Rascal Flatts, to ask the crowd, “How about that Jessica Simpson? I was Googling ‘pretty’ the other day, and her face popped up smiling.”

Google “Jessica Simpson” these days, however, and it seems there would be very little for the singer to smile about. After photos hit the Internet of the perky singer performing at the 99.9 KISS Country Chili Cookoff Jan. 25, Simpson’s new curves—and the unflattering outfit she wore to conceal them (hello, mom jeans!)—became national news faster than the Texas native could say “meat-‘n’-three.” Blogger Perez Hilton dropped the F-bomb, declaring “Jess got fat!” The New York Post dubbed her “Jumbo Jessica” and placed Simpson on its list of 50 Fat Celebrities alongside Ruben Studdard. And even in the current state of economic turmoil, Simpson’s waistline managed to land on President Barack Obama’s radar. During a Feb. 1 TV interview with Matt Lauer, Obama glanced at a magazine cover and noted Simpson “is in a weight battle, apparently.”

The brouhaha has left Simpson, 28, “sad and hurt,” says a source close to her, but also defiant. “She’s disappointed in the message that is being sent to all women,” because overall “Jessica is proud of her body. She’s comfortable in her own skin.”

But now she finds herself among the growing number of celebrities—including Tyra Banks and Jennifer Love Hewitt—who have been forced to defend their figures against an army of body bullies (see box on page 60). Fortunately she has plenty of support: Romo has been her biggest cheerleader (“He calls her before and after every show and gives her tons of compliments,” says the source), along with her sister Ashlee Simpson-Wentz. “I find it completely embarrassing and belittling to all women to read about a woman’s weight or figure,” Ashlee wrote on her blog. Other stars have also sided with Simpson. “She looks great and curvy,” says Simpson’s friend Carmen Electra. “A lot of women would die to look as good as she looks.”

Fans are just as furious to see a healthy Hollywood star chastised for her size. “While her outfit is atrocious, to say she is fat is just ridiculous,” a Simpson loyalist wrote. Another posted, “She is happy! Leave the girl alone.” Though the source says, “Jessica is touched by the huge outpouring of support,” Simpson has stayed mum amid the media maelstrom. But she did tell the crowd at her Jan. 30 show in Lexington, Ky., “Because of my faith, I believe I can conquer the world and all of its judgments.”

Simpson is certainly used to being scrutinized. When she stepped into the spotlight as Nick Lachey‘s blonder half on their MTV reality show Newlyweds: Nick & Jessica in 2003, Simpson quickly became famous for her flighty food faux pas. (To review: Tuna is not chicken and buffalo wings are not made of buffalo.) But by 2004, the pop star’s nutritional knowledge expanded when she was cast to fill Daisy Duke’s tiny shorts in the film version of The Dukes of Hazzard. Swapping her usual tour staples like Double Stuf Oreos and Cracker Barrel meals for the stricter South Beach Diet, “I’m eating differently and taking care of myself,” Simpson told PEOPLE in 2005. “I thought fried chicken was healthy because it’s chicken.” Add to that two-hour workouts with “lots of squats” six days a week, and it’s no wonder that Simpson told PEOPLE at the time, “My body is definitely an accomplishment.”

But nowadays, with no reality show crew or movie camera to cause Simpson to stress over her size, “she’s relaxing a bit and living for herself,” says another Simpson source. “She’s in a happy place. This is more true to who she is.” Currently she works out with a trainer on the road and challenges her bandmates to games on her Wii. While she eats her meals in moderation, she allows herself “a cheat day every week,” Simpson told PEOPLE last April. Her diet weaknesses include Blue Bell ice cream and eating in with Romo. “I’m dating a quarterback now, so we have lots of pizza nights,” she went on. “We lay on the couch, watch movies and order two larges—one pepperoni and one sausage.” But Romo’s not an enabler; he’s a motivator, says Simpson. “If I’m not feeling good about myself, he’ll say, ‘Get your butt up and go to the gym then!'” Not that the quarterback has any qualms about his girlfriend’s figure. Says Simpson’s friend: “Tony loves her body just the way it is.”

Which is one reason why this curve controversy isn’t a cause of concern for Simpson. Calling Romo “the perfect guy for me,” Simpson is “happy and in love,” says the source. “She’s secure with herself, and she embraces the woman she’s become.” What kind of woman is that? One who a) knows never to wear mom jeans again and b) who understands, says her pal, “that she can’t be perfect all the time.”