From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
It had all the makings of the best vacation ever. Sunset walks on a Hawaiian beach. Private soaking tub for two. Couples massage. And on her finger, the still joyously new sight of an engagement ring. For actress Jennifer Love Hewitt, her weeklong getaway at Maui's Grand Wailea Resort with actor fiancé Ross McCall was nothing short of romantic perfection. "They could not have looked happier, holding hands, kidding around the whole time," says an observer. "Jennifer was just there to relax and have some fun. She looked on top of the world."

That is, until pictures of the Ghost Whisperer star emerging from the Pacific surf ran on the gossip Web site TMZ.com with the headline, "We know what you ate this summer, Love—everything!"

Ouch! The site, and others that picked up the photos, invited readers to comment on what they saw. Hundreds did, reacting with sentiments ranging from "it's nice to see normal" to "time to put down that fork." But the online comments that drew the most attention came from the spurned star herself, who responded on her official Web site on Nov. 29. "What I should be doing is celebrating some of the best days of my life and my engagement to the man of my dreams, instead of having to deal with photographers taking invasive pictures from bad angles.... Like all women out there should, I love my body," wrote Hewitt, 28, who has flaunted her figure in Hanes underwear ads for two years. "To all girls with butts, boobs, hips and a waist, put on a bikini—put it on and stay strong."

On Dec. 4, TMZ issued an apology on its TV program: "We did go too far.... And we're sorry."

In the meantime, Hewitt's body-image battle cry rallied others to speak out. "To have to defend [your weight] or explain it—I don't understand when that happened," says actress Anne Hathaway. But it is a phenomenon with which she and her peers are familiar. Eva Mendes adds, "Of course it bothers you. A few months ago, people thought I was pregnant. Maybe I was bloated that day? It's one of those things you've got to laugh at."

Hewitt's stand also became a hot topic on The View. During the Dec. 4 episode, Kate Walsh, 40, of Private Practice—who was also recently snapped in her bikini in Hawaii—told viewers to give Hewitt a break, saying, "she's not being lit in a studio and made up, or airbrushed, or wardrobed! It's not a fat thing." Dr. Ian Smith of Celebrity Fit Club says, "There's a distorted view of what a Hollywood starlet should be. She's in the normal range." Designer Kevan Hall, who has dressed Hewitt for several red carpets, goes further: "She has a fabulous, womanly figure."

Lynn Grefe, the CEO of National Eating Disorders Association, commends Hewitt's gumption. "Kudos to Jennifer Love Hewitt! It's painful to see the constant pressure on girls to be a certain size. I wish that we could get everybody to take a stand like her. It's so demeaning to people to keep apologizing for having a healthy size," says Grefe. "Good for her for saying, 'This is who I am, I'm happy with my size.'" As she should be, says actress Julianne Moore: "It was an unflattering picture of her. She's a beautiful girl and she looks absolutely perfect."

Moore is not the only one to applaud the I Know What You Did Last Summer star's killer body. Hewitt has long been a men's magazine cover staple: Last year FHM ranked her the 14th sexiest women in Hollywood—higher than Halle Berry, Jessica Simpson and Salma Hayek. And Hewitt's curves have moved at least one pop star to immortalize them in song (see box).

Still, even after more than a decade in the public eye, Hewitt herself is realistic about her looks. "I'm not very tall and I have curves," the 5'2 1/2" Texas native told PEOPLE in April when her new underwear ads hit the air. "I'm not a supermodel."

But like many young women, she can't help but compare herself to that unattainable standard. Her biggest problem area is "thighs," the actress told PEOPLE last year. "They're just jiggly and no matter how much I work out they just don't look like Gisele Bündchen's!" And she quipped with resignation, "I have a lovely thing called cellulite on my butt."

If her recent blog manifesto resonates with women, it may be because so many of them share Hewitt's experience of getting to an age when it takes hard work to stay fit. As a teen portraying Scott Wolf's doe-eyed girlfriend on Party of Five in 1994, Hewitt was naturally thin and a regular at McDonald's, Tony Roma's and Pizza Hut. "She ate whatever she wanted," says a source who worked with her then. But "her teenage metabolism is going away now that she's all grown up."

As Hewitt nears 30, "I eat something now and I see it on my leg or I feel a difference body-wise," she told PEOPLE last spring. "I do still eat pretty much what I want. I still like my In-N-Out Burger! I just eat small portions."

And she's been honest that she has no interest in spending all her free time in the company of a personal trainer. With her 16-hour days on-set, "I literally have half an hour to myself before I go to work and maybe a couple of hours when I get home," she said last spring. "Never did it cross my mind that I wanted to spend that time working out!" (Her solution? She had a stationary bike installed in her trailer.)

Then there are her much buzzed-about breasts, which she has affectionately named Thelma and Louise and which have been the source of many punch lines through the years (cue Mad TV's skit called "the Boob Whisperer"). Hewitt laughingly observed in 2005 that "my boobs are starting to find gravity. I invite them up into my bra every morning."

While many women can get behind that sentiment, not even the force of gravity has changed Hewitt's status as one of America's hottest stars. Witness her half-clothed on the cover of Rolling Stone's 2002 Hot List. "She's the sexy girl next door," Ghost Whisperer executive producer Ian Sander told PEOPLE of his leading lady.

Still, Hewitt says being called a sex symbol is "a weird thing" she hasn't quite grown used to yet. "I'm learning that it's okay to feel sexy," she said in 2005. "I'm starting to feel sexy when I don't have makeup on and I'm in my pajamas. That's when I'm most me."

Not that she wants the public to see that side. When a photographer caught a disheveled Hewitt chasing after her King Charles spaniel Charlie last March, "I was upset," she said at the time. "I just didn't feel great about myself."

"She's aware of how she looks on-camera," says designer Kevan Hall. "She knows how to angle her body, as opposed to turning flat and looking straight at the camera."

But in the age of relentless paparazzi and cell phone cameras, getting the exact right angle isn't always possible, Hewitt has learned. On one occasion a set of photos snapped after Hewitt left a lunch date led to (false) pregnancy rumors. "When they take a picture of you and think because you've eaten something you're pregnant? Not a compliment."

So imagine the ego boost Hewitt got when Hanes asked her to model the brand's undergarments in 2005. "She's beautiful both inside and out," says a Hanes spokesperson. "She is aspirational, yet approachable for our target audience."

Despite being flattered, Hewitt admitted earlier this year, "It is a scary thing to stand up there in front of bright lights in your underwear." But she took the plunge knowing that "I have a butt, boobs and a waist. There are a lot of women who can put on the stuff I model for Hanes and they could look like me in it."

It took some work to convince McCall, 31, to see the upside of his girlfriend posing half-naked for a national campaign. "He knew it would feel strange, so he came down to the photo shoot to sort of get through the fact that I stand in my underwear," Hewitt said with a giggle. "He was very supportive."

Add that to the growing list of what has made her relationship of more than two years with the Band of Brothers actor work. "We laugh all the time," Hewitt said of McCall last summer. After high-profile romances with Carson Daly, John Mayer and Antonio Sabato Jr., Hewitt seems thrilled to be committing to McCall. "It's just exciting to be around each other," she said. "Anything we do is fun and exciting."

Yes, even if they're just taking Charlie out for a long walk near her Spanish-style home in the San Fernando Valley or staying in to dine on any one of Hewitt's signature dishes. ("I make a great chardonnay risotto and a great Dover sole," she has bragged.) "She is Martha Stewart," her best friend Jennifer Oleksiw has boasted in the past. "She is incredibly domestic."

But she can't hide away at home and avoid the cameras forever—nor does she intend to. "I try to never go out of the house looking horrid. I wouldn't want people to look at me and go, 'Oh my Lord,'" Hewitt said last year. But if she happens to be caught on-camera again—imperfections and all—she knows life will go on. "What am I going to do?" she asked. "They catch me living my life, and sometimes my life is not glamorous."

  • Contributors:
  • Reported by Alexis Chiu/L.A.,
  • Jennifer Garcia/L.A.,
  • Amy Elisa Keith/L.A.,
  • Monica Rizzo/L.A.,
  • Natasha Burton/New York City,
  • Jeffrey Slonim/New York City,
  • Rachel Teitelbaum/New York City.