Christina Hendricks on Loving Your Body

Most famous as curvalicious Joan on Mad Men (and starring in two new movies), Christina Hendricks reveals her secrets for enjoying life.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on August 21, 2011
10 min read

As Joan Harris (née Holloway), the corseted, curvy, take-no-prisoners secretary-in-chief in AMC's hit series Mad Men, Christina Hendricks has crashed a vase over someone's head to get attention. In real life, the star has wowed audiences and critics simply by being herself, a talent whose range is matched only by her extraordinary energy and beauty. 

This fall she has two new movies -- the comedy I Don't Know How She Does It, co-starring Sarah Jessica Parker, and the thriller Drive, opposite Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan. And she's recently resumed filming the fifth season of Mad Men, which has earned her an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series, a Critics' Choice Television Award, and legions of fans who either want to be Joan or date her. At press time, she was up for her second Emmy nomination. 

Hendricks, 36, has made Hollywood's coveted "A list," and she's done it on her own exacting terms, heralded equally for the mastery of her craft and her looks. Esquire voted her America's Most Beautiful Woman last year, but she's a self-professed homebody who'd rather be knitting than posing on every red carpet in town. She's idealized enough physically to have earned her own Barbie doll, but she makes women feel good about themselves. 

Hendricks' power doesn't just come from her skill or because she thumbs a perfectly manicured finger at the idea of size 2 beauty. It's also due to her stalwart belief that a life well lived -- professionally and personally -- entails confidently embracing oneself and the world. Says I Don't Know How She Does It director Douglas McGrath, "You expect to meet a heart-staggering, man-killing wonder woman, but she's so friendly and sweet, with a wonderful, droll intelligence and sense of humor." 

"My mother always made me feel like we could accomplish anything," says Hendricks of the now-retired therapist. (Her father worked for the U.S. Forest Service; her brother, Aaron, is a graphic designer in Los Angeles and the producer and host of the Web podcast GeeksOn, on which Christina has appeared.) "If we wanted to try something new or had an interest in something, she was always incredibly excited for us and had positive feedback. And I think that affected every part of my life and career and how I've carried myself. I always felt like I could do anything."

In addition to her nonstop career, she's also found time to give back, signing on as spokeswoman for the Latisse Wishes Challenge (, in which the company matches up to $250,000 in donations to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. (Latisse is an FDA-approved medication to promote eyelash growth in a condition called eyelash hypotrichosis.) In just two years, the campaign has raised $1.5 million to help grant wishes to critically ill children.

Hendricks first became familiar with the organization when she was 7 years old and a sick classmate was granted her wish to meet Erik Estrada, star of the then-popular TV series CHiPs. "I've admired Make-A-Wish ever since, so I'm honored to be involved with them," she says. As with other commitments in her life, her involvement is passionate: In Los Angeles, "Christina came and spent an afternoon with seven of the kids, and she had the best connection with them," says foundation spokesman Brent Goodrich. "The kids were hopping on her lap, and she was so interested in them."

Hendricks attributes her down-to-earth values to her parents and the nurturing environment of her childhood home in Twin Falls, Idaho. "It was just a nice place," she says.

It was there she developed her ease with her own looks, mirrored by the attitudes of those around her. "I never even heard people talk about body types," says the actor. "When I was in high school, I would read magazines, but I was just looking at the clothes and the hair," she insists.

"Even now, it's never been a focus in my life. I've always been fit, I've always been active, and I've always been healthy, but I've just tried to live my life the way I live it. It's nice that I've gotten a lot of positive feedback about it lately," she says with a smile, her voice both higher in pitch and quieter than Joan's, "but I'm just doing what I normally do."

Her role on Mad Men has only helped her get her message across: Far from eschewing the figure-flaunting costumes (corsets and garter belts required), Hendricks praises their sexiness and how they make her feel.

Indeed, Hendricks seems to avoid the trap so many people find themselves in when it comes to judging themselves by their appetite or a cultural standard. "Be nice to yourself!" she says. "We all need to look in the mirror and see the things that are beautiful in ourselves, and to remind ourselves of what those things are. And it's nice to have the people around us remind us, too."

Amy Pizer, PhD, a psychotherapist in New York City who praises Hendricks' healthy attitude, notes, "No matter what, you can look in the mirror and find something you like. We have images of what we 'should' look like that aren't realistic. Instead of focusing on what you don't like, practice focusing on finding things, or one thing, that you do."

Having loved ones' admiration is helpful as well, says Pizer, especially if we can internalize those voices. "We are bombarded with images that make us feel substandard, so when you look in the mirror, try to hear friends' voices. What do they say? That you have a beautiful smile, or you glow? Listen to that voice until it is integrated into your own healthy voice."

With 15-hour workdays and constant travel, Hendricks finds that keeping up a healthy routine -- let alone a "normal" life -- requires great discipline. A dancer until she was 19 years old, Hendricks never worried about getting additional exercise or watching what she ate. Now, "I have to constantly remind myself to check in and be good to myself, to take vitamins, and exercise," she admits. "I'd always be happy to just snuggle in bed with a book."

Hendricks practices caring for herself from the moment she awakes, beginning with a soothing soak even if she's required on set at dawn. "I'm not a shower person," she says, "so I always start my day with a bath." And she indulges in one comforting cup of coffee. "I don't really like the taste of it, but I love the smell. It's about having something aromatic and warm in my hand first thing in the morning."

Hendricks is especially conscientious about getting enough sleep and drinking water. "Those two things really affect me daily. I like a lot of sleep, but when I travel, I can't do that, so I know I will have to make up for it later. I just try to stay balanced."

Hendricks' most potent weapon is simple in theory: Everything in moderation. To maintain her famous figure, she does sit-ups and push-ups in her trailer if she has a down moment on the set.

And on a regular basis, she and her husband of two years, actor Geoffrey Arend, schedule workouts together with a trainer, turning what might otherwise be a "have to" into a "love to." Hendricks says during these sessions she does weight training and uses a BOSU ball.

"It makes it so much more fun and makes the time go by so much faster because we're encouraging each other. And my husband is ridiculously funny, so he's making jokes the whole time we're working out, and we're getting time together."

Before turning to acting in her mid-20s, Hendricks modeled in New York and Europe and says that after happily gaining 15 pounds in Italy thanks to indulging in local fare, she has embraced her natural body weight ever since.

That means that rather than follow a strict diet, she eats foods that please her, although with a healthy bent. For example, the couple makes soups to keep in the fridge for snacking. At the same time, she allows room for trying new foods and cooking techniques.

"My husband got a deep fryer for his birthday, so we experimented with that, but I'm not a big fan of fried food," she says. "Our new thing is we've gotten a smoker, and he's making his own bacon."

Hendricks also relishes a savory plate of pasta now and then: "Spaghetti in red sauce is always comforting."

Actor Christina Hendricks is a powerful role model in reminding us that learning to accept --and even love -- our bodies isn't an impossible task.

Two negative forces stand between us and the mirror, Pizer says, "An unrealistic media ideal and our overly critical internal voice." She offers a few tips to help you begin to change your thinking:

Give praise where praise is due. "Appreciate the functionality of your body and all the healthy things it can do," says Pizer. By shifting the thinking from "Everything's sagging" to "This body carried a baby," or "This body is strong," you're practicing a cognitive technique called "reframing."

Be your own friend. "We always compare ourselves to others," says Pizer, "but we rarely talk as harshly to a friend as we do to ourselves." Hearing a friend's voice in your head instead of your own can stop self-scrutiny and even make you smile.

Redirect. When you're stuck in a negative thought, "ask yourself, 'Why am I looking at this body part so much when I have so many other things to do?'" Instead, make a list of what you value about yourself.

Take a step back. "Do things that remind you that appearance is the least important part of being a good or valued person," says Pizer. "Nurture your friendships, do community service --anything that makes you feel good about yourself."

For Hendricks, a happy and healthy life means a solid home base with her family and close friends. "When my husband and I aren't working, we are always together," Hendricks says. "He's my best friend."

More complicated to schedule but just as crucial to her happiness is time with her female friends. "I couldn't do anything without my girlfriends," she says. "They're the best things in my life. We're all so busy, so we have to remind ourselves how important those relationships are, but we always get in touch with each other and make time to get together and catch up."

One place you won't find Hendricks is out at Hollywood's hot spots. "When I'm not working or having to go to events, I'm at home," she says with a laugh. There, she curls up with a book or a ball of yarn. "For me, knitting is meditative."

Until recently, when her schedule became too unpredictable, Hendricks also treasured weekly accordion lessons, which she began in her early 30s. "I do have to say that I have ignored it over the last year and a half, and I'm ashamed of that," she says. "It's hard to find time to take a lesson every week. But it's something I love, and music is incredibly important to me. If you practice an instrument, suddenly it's four hours later and you are completely de-stressed. I want to get back to that."

The effects of learning music may have greater health benefits than simply easing tension. A recent study conducted at the University of Kansas Medical Center showed that adults aged 60 to 83 who had played a musical instrument for at least 10 years performed better on memory and brain function tests than those who had not. Brenda Hanna-Pladdy, PhD, author of the study and now assistant professor of neurology at Emory University, suggests that studying music creates alternate connections in the brain that help compensate for diminishing functions as we age.

The importance of additional neural pathways can be likened to having alternative routes when driving on a traffic-jammed highway: "If you don't have another way to get where you need to go," says Hanna-Pladdy, "you just sit in the traffic jam."

For those like Hendricks who come to music later, says Hanna-Pladdy, "our study shows the most important element is the length of time the person studied music, rather than the age they started. So if one began in one's mid-30s and studied until age 65, that's a significant amount of time."

Perhaps even more important: "Music engages both hemispheres of the brain, it's not a drug, it has no side effects, and it's enjoyable." If Hendricks wishes she had more time to play music, she is a woman who otherwise has few regrets, thanks to discovering the secret to her own happiness. "I want to be a great actor and a great wife and a great friend, and that's what I focus on," she says.

"I don't sit around and think about myself too much."

Working 15-hour days doesn't have to result in climbing the walls at the end of them. Hendricks shares her surefire tips for feeling good, despite the daily pressure of to-do lists and stressors.

Unplug. Just because the world seems wired for Wi-Fi doesn't mean you have to use it. Hendricks spends her time on airplanes lost in books. "Reading a novel is such a treat for me," she says.

Skip the shower. Beginning each day with a bath is a soothing way to awake and doesn't need to take any more time than a shower. When it comes to de-stressing, "A hot bath helps for sure," says Hendricks.

Sleep in. Given the opportunity, Hendricks catches up on sleep. "If you let me sleep for 14 hours, I will do so without hesitation!" she says with a laugh.

Indulge in your comfort food. "For me, it's spaghetti with red sauce," says Hendricks. "It's not that hard to make, and it's one thing you can order from room service that they won't mess up."

Find a hobby you can enjoyat home. Hendricks chills out by knitting, which she calls "relaxing and meditative," as well as by listening to music and practicing her accordion.

Stay connected. The less time you have to catch up with friends and family, says Hendricks, the more you probably need them -- especially if they're hands-on. Says the actor, "My husband is good at rubbing my shoulders when I need it!"