Sherri Shepherd says diabetes diagnosis helped her stop worrying about how she looks in a swimsuit: 'I now choose to focus on my health'

Sherri Shepherd reflects on body image and health while living with diabetes. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images)
Sherri Shepherd reflects on body image and health while living with diabetes. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images)

It Figures is Yahoo Life's body image series, delving into the journeys of influential and inspiring figures as they explore what body confidence, body neutrality and self-love mean to them.

Sherri Shepherd is an emotional eater.

It's a relationship with food she cultivated while growing up in a house that used the approach, whether to soothe difficult feelings or to celebrate happy ones.

"If you've been bullied at school, you come home and mom makes you apple pie. Something good happens and it’s like, 'Let's go and celebrate with an ice cream,'" she tells Yahoo Life. "If I felt sad, broccoli was not gonna help me."

In hindsight, she views it as a piece of a larger family culture around food. She recalls "a lot of carbs, a lot of starches, a lot of sugar" in her house. She also remembers there being various family members with diabetes — most of whom didn't deal with it properly.

So when Shepherd was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 2007, she was determined to be different. Changing her food habits was a particular challenge, as was dealing with criticism of her body's appearance that she's faced since being in the public eye.

"This is a horrible industry where people can make you feel so bad," she says. "Sometimes I think, 'I didn't know [how I looked] was bad until I started reading all this stuff about me saying it's bad.' I went through that a lot with my double chin."

The negativity is something she's been open about, sharing with the Today show in 2013 that an acting manager told her early on that her size was going to impact her career. "You’re going to have to lose weight because you will never play anything more than the girl next door," she recalled him saying in 1995.

Shepherd has taken on lead roles since then, proving that manager wrong. She's also seen the size of her body change, received a serious health diagnosis and done a lot of internal work.

"When you don't feel good inside, it affects what you look like externally. So I think for me, if I'm feeling like I look slouchy or I look big, that is usually an indicator that I'm not taking care of myself internally. It’s just reflecting the way I feel," she says, noting that unstable glucose levels due to type 2 diabetes can make her particularly irritable and often contribute to those low self-esteem days. "Those mood swings, depression, you know, where you just feel like I’m not remembering stuff, I'm not feeling my best, that's because internally, something's going on."

While different diets have contributed to weight loss over the years, Shepherd recognizes that her health is at its best when she's not focused on size.

"I now choose to focus on my health, as opposed to losing weight to fit into a swimsuit," she says. Abbott's FreeStyle Libre glucose monitoring device helps her to do so. "When I have my blood sugar levels in line and get that under control, the internal, then it just radiates. I could still be my usual size 14 or 16 and not be wishing that I was an 8 or 10 because I'm happy where I am, because I feel good."

It also helps ensure that she isn't brought down by negativity coming from external sources.

"People who come at you on social media generally are not happy about themselves. And the fact that they can't say anything to me other than, 'You have no hips,' 'You have no butt,' 'You’re not cute,' 'Why do you look fat?' Well, that's the only level they can talk to me at, and I gotta look at that and go, 'Sherri. That's kind of sad, that's all they got,'" she says. "So that's the way I choose to look at it."

Most importantly, being on top of her health has allowed Shepherd to live her best, most active and energetic life for the sake of her 18-year-old son Jeffrey.

"This boy is looking at me and I have to do whatever I can do to be here for him, to teach him how to make healthy choices," she says. "I want to do things. I want to live."