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Christy Carlson Romano Opens Up in Wide-Ranging Interview About Turning 40 After Surviving Child Stardom (Exclusive)

The former Disney Channel actor tells PEOPLE exclusively that her big birthday feels like "the next chapter"

<p>Dylan Lujano</p>

Dylan Lujano

Christy Carlson Romano is ringing in a new decade.

The Disney Channel star, who got her start in the acting industry when she was just 6 years old, turned 40 on Wednesday.

In a wide-ranging interview, the former child actress — who's been candid about her ups and downs growing up in Hollywood — tells PEOPLE exclusively that she’s made peace with her past.

“There were a lot of gifts to being a young performer, so I am tremendously grateful for starting as young as I did and the positive experiences that I had. And I know that kind of sounds wishy-washy, but it's not,” Romano says. “I've come through not understanding a lot of things about growing up in the industry."

<p>Dylan Lujano</p> Christy Carlson Romano at her 40th birthday party

Dylan Lujano

Christy Carlson Romano at her 40th birthday party

In 2020 Romano — who starred in numerous Disney channel shows in the early 2000s, including Even Stevens, Kim Possible and TV movie Cadet Kelly — relocated to Austin, Texas, with her husband and their two daughters.

Now she's reinvented herself with her company PodCo, home to several rewatch podcasts of beloved TV shows from the very same era she came of age.

Related: Nick Jonas, Hilary Duff, and More Former Disney Channel Stars Who Are Now Parents

And on her personal podcast Vulnerable, Romano is just that: She's open about the challenges she faced while growing up on screen, including developing an eating disorder and struggling with body image issues and alcohol.

"I understand that eating disorders are still very prevalent amongst young women, and even men," she says. "I still just want my girls to know that they are beautiful in whatever body shape they have. That's the first and most important thing."

With so many difficult experiences behind her, Romano says this birthday in particular feels momentous.

"For me, I've always been a little bit of an open book, especially since I've been sober. I'm definitely sharing so [many] aspects of my marriage and my family life," she says of finding new purpose over the last decade. "I got sober when I was pregnant with my first child. I had a problem with binge drinking throughout my teens and 20s, and it was never good for me," she reflects. "I had to really highly evaluate what life I wanted to live and what kind of parent I wanted to be."

After building a new beginning with her own family, "Being 40 for me is a lot bigger than maybe it is for a lot of people," she says. "For me, turning 40 means that I can start the next chapter of my life.”

<p>Drew Bly Pockets/Shutterstock</p> Christy Carlson Romano at her birthday party on March 15 at the Birchwood Room at Calamigos Ranch in Malibu

Drew Bly Pockets/Shutterstock

Christy Carlson Romano at her birthday party on March 15 at the Birchwood Room at Calamigos Ranch in Malibu

Related: Christy Carlson Romano Debunks Her $3 Million Net Worth, Explains 'How I Blew All My Disney Money'

In fact, Romano's fairytale-themed 40th birthday bash in Malibu merged both her past life and her present one. She’s still close with many of her old castmates who were in attendance for the soirée alongside members of her current podcasting community.

“This party is going to have most of the people that have come up through collaborating with me. Garrett Clayton is coming, Daniella Monet is coming. My Even Stevens family's coming, except for Shia. I'm just not in touch with him,” she told PEOPLE ahead of the bash. “But we're pockets of people who've been in each other's lives for years. [And] you're going to end up seeing a lot of folks that I've had para-social relationships with and then actually met through the podcast, and now they're just friends and family."

Related: 'Even Stevens' Star Christy Carlson Romano Reveals She's 5 Years Sober

Celebrations aside, Romano says the number 40 has still been hard to wrap her head around.

“Obviously I'm in denial,” she says, “but I think what's been happening for me is that it's given me a really great perspective almost instantly. I think people always say ‘Oh, just wait 'til you turn 40.’ As a woman, you just change so much."

<p>Dylan Lujano</p> Christy Carlson Romano at her 40th birthday party

Dylan Lujano

Christy Carlson Romano at her 40th birthday party

Growing up, Romano never imagined what 40 might look like — " I didn't buy into it," she says — but now she's really noticing the difference.

"I have to schedule a lot more doctor's appointments, I have to make sure I get a mammogram," she says. "And so your perspective shifts very rapidly.”

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“I think internally, there's a voice inside me saying, ‘You're finally a grownup,'" she adds. "I can put so many things to bed and continue along the path that I've already been on, but in a way that's from the lens of an adult.”

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