Queen Latifah Says She Decided 'to Love Myself' and Wants to End the Stigma Around Obesity

The actress and hip-hop star joined pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk for the "It's Bigger Than Me" campaign that aims to educate people about obesity as a clinical condition

Queen Latifah strongly believes the age-old adage that "health is wealth" — and she plans to spend that currency.

"We want to live long healthy lives," the 51-year-old star of The Equalizer tells PEOPLE in this week's issue. "We want to be around to see all the good things happen, you know?"

That's why Latifah teamed up with pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk for their "It's Bigger Than Me" campaign that aims to destigmatize obesity through a video series and online resources. "I've been through it: struggling with weight loss, yo-yo dieting," she says. "But the reality is when it comes to obesity, it is a clinical condition. It's in your DNA. Maybe your hormones are doing something that you're not aware of and that's something for a professional to deal with."

Queen Latifah - Diagnosis Stigma
Novo Nordisk

The World Health Organization defines obesity as an "abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that presents a risk to health," measured by a Body Mass Index (BMI) percentage of 30 or more, and according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's latest numbers, 42.4 percent of Americans fall into that category.

BMI is a calculation that tries to categorize weight and measure body fat in adults. Since it compares weight and height, BMI does not measure body fat directly. The index is a common convention but experts consider it a flawed standard because it was not developed to include people of color.

Latifah says she was educated by a trainer who she'd been working with ahead of a movie shoot. "She was really educated, and she broke down what I would need to do. She was like, 'Here's what you weigh. Here's your BMI. You fall into the category of obesity,'" the Oscar nominee recalls. "And I'm like, 'I'm obese?' I thought obese meant you had to be 400, 500 lbs."

Queen Latifah
The Tyler Twins

Even before that, Latifah, born Dana Elaine Owens, said growing up in New Jersey that "I was big for my size," she says. "Looking at my class pictures, I'm the tallest girl." Once her body began to change, Latifah only became "more conscious" of how she looked. "As you hit puberty people start looking at you in a different way, and people can be mean," Latifah says. "I dealt with all of that."

Luckily, Latifah could lean on her mom Rita Owens — an art teacher who died in 2018 after struggling with a heart condition — for guidance. "I had a mother who kind of talked me through that," she says. "I had so many friends whose parents would not have one conversation with them about it, and you need to know what's gonna happen to you as a young woman."

queen latifah and mom rita
Queen Latifah and her mom Rita Owens. Johnny Nunez/Wireimage

At age 18, Latifah experienced what she calls "flashes of self-hate" that she quickly wanted to end. "I said, 'Dana, you're either going to hate yourself, or you're going love yourself.' And I decided at that moment I'm going to love myself," Latifah says. "I don't want to ever be in a place where I don't love me."

Loving oneself has proven to be a journey for Latifah. "Life has valleys and its peaks," she says. "I'm always trying to work towards becoming a better me."

RELATED VIDEO: Queen Latifah Stars in Novo Nordisk's "It's Bigger Than Me" Campaign to End Obesity Stigma

Entering the music industry as a rapper, with her first album All Hail the Queen dropping in 1989, tested her resilience as she witnessed the extreme dieting and weight loss tactics her peers would employ. "Watching other artists who were big, platinum artists, prepare for their albums, they would drop all of this weight, get a six-pack, and I'm like, 'Do I have to do that in order to be successful?'" Latifah says. "But I'm not that person."

That didn't stop people around Latifah from suggesting to her that she change her appearance. "I've heard more conversations than you can imagine, but they sounded so crazy to me," she says. "I knew I should not take advice from these people."

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Something else that Latifah found perplexing: stylists who didn't know how to dress her body, which she says has never worn less than a size 10. "They don't know what kind of clothes to put on you, they don't know where to shop for you, they don't know how to tailor things for you," she says. "And I'm like, 'God, do I have to just lose weight to make it easier for everyone else?'"

Eventually, Latifah found designers like Escada and Badgley Mischka, and her stylist Tiffany Snell, who have helped her created red carpet looks she loved. "The most important thing is showing up on that carpet with confidence, and allowing others to see that," the Grammy winner says.

Latifah's self-assurance ebbed and flowed throughout her career, though. The day-to-day demands of her talk show The Queen Latifah Show, which launched in 1999, made it "really hard to keep my weight in check," she confesses. Latifah found herself judging how she looked on the small screen: "Looking at yourself on TV, which already adds 10 or 15 lbs., I'm like, 'Oh, man. Look at my chin, look at my hips.'"

In 2003, after losing 25 lbs. Latifah underwent breast reduction surgery to alleviate years of back and shoulder pain. Five years later, she served as a spokesperson for Jenny Craig. Even though Latifah doesn't consider herself a "fad diet person," she knew "I did encounter challenges with my weight." Latifah also has a family history of diabetes, one of the conditions— along with coronary heart disease, gallbladder disease, high blood pressure, Osteoarthritis and sleep apnea — that obese people can be at risk for, giving her another reason she to keep tabs on her health.

Latifah sees her doctors at least once a year and urges other obese people to do the same. "When it comes to your health, we've got to get real," she says. "You have to check in with your body, check in with your doctor. They're the ones who actually have the knowledge to help you."

Consulting medical experts helped Latifah understand the difference between health and body size. "Just because you're slim doesn't mean you're healthy," the Broadway vet says. "A lot of people, they'll be half my size, but they're actually malnourished. I'm probably healthier than half those people just because I know where I stand. I know what I'm made of."

Barbara Nitke/CBS

After decades of facing Hollywood stereotypes and feeling judged because of her weight, "I'm in a good place," Latifah says. "I've learned to manage my body."

The "U.N.I.T.Y." rapper hopes starring in CBS's The Equalizer as a former black ops commando previously played by men gives others the confidence she's found. "I'm proud to show a woman who looks like me, who is powerful, strong, bad-ass, vulnerable, flawed, imperfect, sexy, living life," she says. "People I know age and are doing this, and we don't see enough of that."

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