Chrissy Metz was just a child when she first felt at odds with other kids her age.
“I started becoming aware of being different in the sense of my size when I was in fifth grade,” the This Is Us star, who wrote a memoir, This Is Me, tells PEOPLE exclusively. “I was going through puberty and [my friends] felt great in a little bikini or shorts and I was like, ‘My body is different.’”
Continues Metz, 37: “People would tell me, ‘You’re chubby’ or ‘You’re this,’ and I started to examine everybody else’s body and my own and pick myself apart.”
Unhappy, “I started to soothe myself with what was readily available, which was food,” says Metz. “I’m going to stuff my feelings so I don’t have to think about it.”
Still, Metz used her sense of humor to “deflect” from the judgment she felt. “I would tell stories and jokes at parties,” she says. “I found an outlet … to deal with the hardships.”
When she moved to Hollywood to pursue her dream, however, Metz encountered some of the same hurtful reactions she’d experienced in her youth.
- For more from Metz, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now
From casting directors, “I’ve heard a lot of things,” she says. “One was like, ‘You’re too pretty to play the big girl.’ What does that mean? God forbid anybody bigger than a size zero could be attractive.”
Ultimately, Metz landed her “dream” role on This Is Us and says she’s finally come to terms with her status as the breakout star. “I learned to embrace the idea that people could be inspired by me,” she says.
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And when it comes to her weight, Metz says she’s finally happy in her own skin. “I don’t focus on numbers,” she says. “It’s all about how I feel.”
This Is Me: Loving the Person You Are Todayis on shelves now.