Valerie Bertinelli opens up about lifelong pressures to lose weight: 'So much time wasted'

Valerie Bertinelli has spent nearly all her life in the spotlight — and she knows firsthand what it's like to feel pressured to lose weight.

Bertinelli became a working actor at age 14 and quickly learned that her appearance mattered a lot in Hollywood. But the Food Network star, 60, told People that hurtful comments from the adults in her life caused her to struggle with body image issues ever since she was a little girl.

"The very first time I became really aware of my body, I remember my fifth grade teacher patted me on the belly and said, 'You might want to keep an eye on that,'" Bertinelli recalled. "How dare he? At that age we're so full of joy, and then to have someone slap you for nothing. For just standing there."

She said she spent the years that followed obsessing about her weight.

"Now I can be angry for that little girl," she said. "It feels like so much time wasted."

Landing the role of bubbly teenager Barbara Cooper on the sitcom "One Day at a Time" only made matters worse. "I look back at pictures and even in the first season, I felt big next to (co-star) Mackenzie (Phillips). I wasn't. I was 15 years old. But I was made to feel I could stand to lose a few, like, 'Let's see if we can get you into a smaller size.'"

From then on, Bertinelli "was always trying to be better," she said. "Thinner. Nicer. Prettier."

The former Jenny Craig spokeswoman, who says she spent 20 years trying to lose the same 20 pounds, isn't as hard on herself these days. Back in January, she began a wellness journey on TODAY with hopes of finding a healthier mind-body connection in 2020.

"I don't weigh myself as much anymore," said Bertinelli told People. "I'll put on some jeans once in a while to see how they feel. Why do I have to know the number I am?"

The former "Hot in Cleveland" star is inspired by body-positive celebrities like pop singer Lizzo and model Ashley Graham. "It would have been nice to have had (role models) like that when I was growing up to look up to," she said. "It doesn't freakin' matter what size they are. They glow from within. If someone does say something about their body, they can say, 'Screw you, I'm beautiful.' I would love to be able to say those words."

Bertinelli is grateful that being honest about her struggle with body image issues has helped her connect on a deeper level with fans. "So many people have said 'I feel that way too,'" she shared.

"There are so many kind people in the world, and it's nice to make a connection with them. If I can help somebody be kind to themselves, then hopefully that will help me be kind to myself, too."