As a teenager growing up in Southern California, Mariska Hargitay didn't exactly embrace her curvy figure. "I was a competitive swimmer and a tomboy and I thought my curves got in the way. I rebelled against them," says Hargitay. "But now I love my body. I try to focus on who I am rather than who I'm not." At 49, Hargitay is the star of the long-running detective drama Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, the founder of the Joyful Heart Foundation, which helps empower abused women, and the mother of three kids (August, 6; Amaya, 2; and Andrew, 1). Incredibly successful yet surprisingly down-to-earth, Hargitay is one of our favorite cover stars and she was happy to answer LHJ readers' questions about gaining body confidence and living a more satisfying life.
You seem to be so together and sure of yourself. What helped you get this way?- Kathy Agate, Banner Elk, North Carolina
MH: I wasn't always confident. I spent most of my 20s having people say no to me. I'd go on auditions and the casting directors would be like: You're not tall enough, you're not pretty enough, you're not blonde enough, your nose is too big, your nose is too small, your skin is too dark, your skin is too light, change your name! There was so much rejection. I didn't work for eight years. But my dad taught me not to give up. He'd hold his forefinger and his thumb about an inch apart and say, "Mariska, it takes about this much more to be a winner." I'd get an audition and he'd say, "How hard are you going to work for it? What are you going to do today to get yourself closer to your goal?" So I did what I could to become the best actor I could be: I read every play, I went to acting class, I took every audition, I pushed myself when I didn't feel like pushing myself. I acted confident even when I wasn't. And slowly, by doing the thing I loved and by getting better at it, I became more confident.
What tips would you give women to help them feel more comfortable in their own skin?- Sapphire Kharyzyma, Wilmington, Delaware
MH: 'm a big believer that your word is your wand. You know how people say things like, "Oh my gosh, I'm such an idiot." I don't say things like that anymore. Those put-downs, even if they're in jest, are little bullets of negativity that you don't need in your life. Women need to show compassion for themselves. I find it so upsetting when I try to pay a compliment to a friend and instead of taking it she puts herself down. I'll say, "I like your shirt!" And she'll say, "This? It's so old." We feel the need to dismiss a compliment and make it less than one. Take the moment. Take it in. Focus on your gifts.
Our culture is so fixated on being thin. How did you learn to accept your curves?- Eleanor Freeman, Hopewell, New Jersey
MH: I love my curves because they scream, "I'm a mama!" I'm the girl who started wearing maternity pants about an hour after I found out I was pregnant because I was so excited about becoming a mom. I'm just grateful that my body is healthy. I want to be on this planet for a long time, so I try to eat things that make me feel good and make me strong. But I also love food and I love life: Some days having that extra bowl of pasta and a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup means more to me than being thin.
A lot of women feel pressure to have the perfect body. Do you have advice for them?- Maureen Higgins, Washington, D.C.
MH:My mother was actress Jayne Mansfield. She died when I was 3 years old. She was celebrated for her curves and for being feminine. There's this picture of her in a director's chair with her measurements on the back: 40-21-35. When I look at that picture part of me says, Mom, I love your sense of humor. But the other part of me says, No, your name is supposed to go there. Your body is not who you are. I don't think women should label themselves based on the way they look. What about defining yourself by a different kind of measurement? What about your heart, your soul, your compassion, your generosity, your strength, and your power? There are so many other things to focus on besides your waistline.
What do you do to stay fit?- Sarah Battaglia, Miller Place, New York
MH: try to run because it keeps me sane. There are weeks I don't do it at all. There are weeks when I do it every day. But I also live in a house with a lot of stairs and three young kids, and as clichéd as it sounds, chasing after my kids is no small feat. I don't even need to go to a gym because all I do is go up and down stairs carrying toddlers!
Is it harder to stay in shape now that you're in your 40s?- Kimi Trama, West Chester, Pennsylvania
MH:Things are sagging a bit -- I'm not going to lie. But am I going to be upset about the sag or am I going to look at my three gorgeous kids and my husband and count my lucky stars?
Your Joyful Heart Foundation encourages women to live without fear. In what ways do you think you are fearless?- Sandra Gherzi, San Francisco, California
MH: hen you grow up with two older brothers you always want to jump in and be part of the mix. I read this book calle Feel the Fear. . . And Do It Anyway. It was a self-help book but I thought it was so brilliant because we're all scared of stuff. A lot of people don't know this, but I hate, hate, hate public speaking. It terrifies me. I was invited to go back to my alma mater, UCLA, and speak at the graduation. It was such an incredible honor, but when they asked me to do it I was paralyzed with fear. I kept thinking, What do I have to say? Oh my God, this is so overwhelming, I can't deal. But I put a lot of work into the speech and once I got onstage, I killed it. When I'm scared of something, it just means I have to dig a little deeper.
What are your thoughts on plastic surgery? Are you for or against it?- Jessica Spencer, Wellsboro, Pennsylvania
MH: used to be against it. I think it's because I was raised by a father who didn't like makeup. If I had makeup on he'd say, "Honey, you didn't wash your face!" But now that I'm older I think women should do whatever they want to make themselves feel good. I don't think they should go overboard, and I still think the natural look is the most beautiful. But if you want to do something to help you look more refreshed, I'm all for it.
I also lost my mom when I was young. How has your loss made you who you are today?- Lyn King-Sisco, San Angelo, Texas
MH: God, this question makes me cry [she tears up]. I feel a total kindred spirit with anyone who has lost her mother, especially at a young age. When something like that happens it leaves a hole in your heart that can never be filled. I know I'm not over it. I'll hear women talk about their mothers and how close they are and it's so painful. I had a lovely stepmother but it's not the same as having your own mom. But I do know that hole in my heart pushed me to want to become the best mother I could be. Sometimes it's what you don't have that dictates or guides your life the most.
Knowing what you know now, what kind of advice would you give to your 16-year-old self?- Kimberly Barrett, Oak Park, California
MH: ive your life by the "What if . . ." game. Instead of saying, "I can't," try saying, "What if I can . . ." instead. "What if I can . . . become an actress. What if I can . . . become more confident." And then you have to believe it, and act it, with all that you are.
I just absolutely adore her. My tumblr is basically a dedication to her. My Queen