November 26, 2008 12:00 PM

I had a turning point recently: I looked in the mirror and saw that the cottage cheese that forms under your buttocks and thighs was no longer going away with any Hollywood voodoo. I was in Florida writing my book. I was eating healthy, but the cellulite cheese wouldn’t go away, no matter what yoga position I got into. That’s when I decided I have to start making life changes. I’m 36, and I hated it when old people would say, “Well, your metabolism changes; you’re going to have to watch it.” And I was always like, “Yeah, you’re going to have to watch me stay the same.”

The secret is how much you put in your mouth. It takes absolute paying attention to not gorge anymore, not overdrink, not do anything to excess. Because you see the pouches. I’ve gone up and down, but this is a new turn. Last summer I definitely had it—I was showing up in Hawaii in a bikini. And then I fell apart. In May, after the cottage cheese revelation, I finally said, “No more.” If you don’t make a conscientious commitment to change at a certain age, you will never get it back.

It’s all the more horrific being in this business. The paparazzi are so aggressive. I don’t mind the frontal bathing-suit shot, when you maybe know they are there. It’s the bending-over butt shot that’s hard. From age 35 on, you need photographers to be polite at certain angles. It should be a law. And they should carry a light to diffuse us.

If I were living in the Midwest I’d have that extra 30 lbs. and be fine with it. But there is extra pressure in Hollywood. The pressure is also from the inside: You want to look good for your man. But wanting to look good for my man [Jim Carrey] still allows me to fall off the wagon; you can only have willpower for so long. Since May, I’ve made a commitment to myself. I want to look good. It makes me feel good. And it kind of reflects. I’m shining on the inside.

In terms of body parts, I have some interior ones I am very proud of. My kidneys rock! On the exterior, I am lucky that my legs are muscular. When you have muscles in your legs, you tend to burn more calories. I have Mary Lou Retton thighs. I tell photographers to look out for the Mary Lou Rettons; I don’t want them to look too big. But I like them now—they are their own Stairmasters, burning those calories.

I don’t like my stretch marks. There is nothing you can do about them but cry in a dark corner. I have not learned to accept them yet. I hate them. I don’t want people to go, “Whatever, it’s not like you have fat dripping off you.” They make a woman feel very insecure. Right after childbirth, I was 211 lbs. Something had to happen to my skin because of it. I might be able to get back into a size 4, but skin is proof that there was some damage. It looks like a cat attacked my body. Of course, no one has seen them; they have airbrushed them out of photos. I am not sure if Jim has ever seen them. I make sure there’s not enough light.

Now let’s talk about the neck: I didn’t know what Nora Ephron was talking about in her book I Feel Bad About My Neck until six months ago. I looked in the mirror and I saw the beginnings of turkey neck. I pulled it back and thought, “Is there such a thing as a neck-lift?” My sister JoJo does the makeup for Dancing with the Stars and she says a lot of the women tape their cheeks to have sort of a face-lift. I think drag queens do the same thing. So I have tremendous hope in the area of Scotch tape.

I go to my sister a lot; she has good pointers. A big one is stay away from the powder at a certain age because it shows every line on your face. I’ve learned to go with minimal foundation. You might look a little shiny, but at this point we just call that glowing. I cannot do my makeup in harsh, bathroom-mirror lighting. I’ll never leave the house, I’ll just be too upset looking at every pore. With beautiful lighting, you are going to think you look so great, and you’ll feel great. And you’ll be able to walk out the door.

My friends and I talk about this stuff constantly. My best friend just called me and said, “I am going in for Juvéderm. I cannot take my laugh lines anymore.” She is a mom of two in the Midwest next to a cornfield. A mom who doesn’t leave the house wants to get Juvéderm! So, I’m honest about this stuff because people want to know that it does take a little help.

A lot of celebrities mess up their faces with too many injections—you see the large cheekbones. We have to learn from the generation above us.

I get facials with microdermabrasion. And I get Botox in my forehead. I do just a little bit every two months, so I keep mobility. That’s another key: People pay a lot of money for a lot so it lasts four months. If you overdo it, you look bad. As for plastic surgery, I got my boobs done when I was 19 and I got them rotated 10 years later, but that’s another story. I do plan on facial surgery someday—after 50.

The mirror is my friend, and I’ll tell you why: When I was a little girl, I pretended it was my audience. The mirror has been my teacher. Looking in the mirror as you age forces you to accept who you are a little faster. I’m starting to grow to love the little marks. Many of these lines are from the hell I endured with my son and his autism. And the triumphs. Even as I age in the face, there’s a light that shines through my eyes.

I feel so much better now than I did in my 20s, when I was a Playmate with boobs and trying to play against that stereotype. I acted more obnoxious to downplay it because I was uncomfortable with my sexuality. I was uncomfortable being sexy, which is why my clothes were really just awful. I’d get them for free, but they were not designer clothes. They were people-trying-to-make-it clothes. I actually pay for my clothes today. I don’t even have my stylist pull; I shop online for myself. I do what feels good.

I first posed for Playboy in 1993 and then in 2005, after I had my son Evan. They haven’t come calling again. I think they know that I wouldn’t do it. I have turned into such a mom-warrior that I don’t want to go back in that direction, even though I feel I could do it. Then again, Erin Brockovich looked hot as she was trying to do good in the world. So I’m absolutely going to wear my Christian Louboutin shoes while fighting the government for more autism research.

A lot of how you feel has to do with how your partner makes you feel. Jim is a big source of confidence. We’ve both had partners who have not made us feel so good. It’s good to be honest, but you shouldn’t hurt the other person. He’s done nothing but make me feel good. I can talk to him about the little things. I tell him that my boobs are heading south for the winter. They’re beyond Florida, they’re in Costa Rica. He just laughs at me and says I look great. I tell him he’s in denial. He talks me through it. I don’t care that much what people think, but I do want to look good for him. I’m more private with him than I am anywhere else. I will hide this article from him.

As you grow older, you shouldn’t bitch and moan about the problems that much to your partner. It makes them focus on something they probably wouldn’t notice in the first place. We have issues, but they don’t see what we see. I don’t glorify the parts I am embarrassed about to him. I am still a girl and insecure in some parts. But someday I’ll be able to tell him. It’s inevitable. Because we are going to be together forever.

Jenny McCarthy’s latest book is Mother Warriors (Penguin, 2008). She spoke to PEOPLE’s Bryan Alexander

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