Maiysha is not a person who loves the gym. But after a two-week layoff stemming from a fall, the Grammy-nominated singer has found her way back to the elliptical trainer.
"Kill me now!" Maiysha pleaded during our recent workout at the Lakeshore Athletic Club Illinois Center in Chicago. "I'm sweating!" Then she laughed. "It's OK," she said. "My body is already thanking me for it."
Once a successful plus-size model who suffered from a compulsive eating disorder, Maiysha, 30, isn't just moving her body these days. She's reconnecting with it. Through a combination of psychotherapy, diet and exercise, the curvaceous 5-foot-10-inch songstress dropped 60 pounds, slimming down to 160. At the same time, she relaunched her music career, earning a 2009 Grammy nod for her debut album "This Much Is True"—all in one year.
The weight loss cost Maiysha her lucrative modeling career, where she was known as the alluring face of Lane Bryant. But she said getting right-sized out of the industry was a small sacrifice for her health.
"There were two things I wanted to do all my life," said the Brooklyn-based musician, who has a quick smile and easy laugh. "Have a healthy relationship with myself physically and make an album."
Raised between Minneapolis and Chicago—her parents divorced when she was 3 years old—Maiysha was a bright, precocious child who excelled in musical theater, fashion design and visual art. "Maiysha wears her beauty, creativity and intelligence like a fluffy sweater: comfortably," said her mother, Patricia Arnold, who is a veteran television journalist and is now executive director of university relations at Chicago State University.
But although she was never ashamed of her curves or her size, Maiysha said she battled feeling "empty" and "bottomless." A self-described "latchkey kid," she often used food to comfort herself when she was bored or lonely.
Her compulsive eating became a habit about age 8 and continued throughout her adolescence and then at Sarah Lawrence College. Though music was her first love, she began full-figure modeling after graduation to pay off student loans, and landed in a world that naturally supported her eating disorder.
All the while, she was trying to break into the music business. When she suspected that major record labels were rejecting her work because of weight issues, things went south. She gained more weight, stopped writing and performing, and dropped off the music industry radar. Hitting bottom, she said, forced her to turn things around.
"I didn't jump up and go to the gym," she said. "I had to relearn how to do things. I told my therapist, 'I'm ready to recommit, but here's the thing: I'm pretty sure I have an eating disorder.' And it opened everything up."
Now she's staying open about binge eating to help others because "the power was in the secret, not in the food itself," she said. "The few people I shared [my issues with] were so responsive that it was comforting; I didn't feel like I was alone."
Maiysha—who began using one name when she started recording—recently swung through Chicago to see her mother and have her hair done by her stylist before the Grammy Awards. While she was here, I had a chance to work out with her. Though she was still sore from falling in 4-inch heels at the Sundance Film Festival, she knew exercise would help both her stress levels and her voice.
"Working out has made my pitch better," she said. "And it has given more endurance and confidence onstage."
During our hourlong workout and a phone interview, she talked about how to conquer a food addiction, and how to get yourself through the gym door, when you feel like walking past it.
Write it down. Maiysha discovered that a food journal was one of the most powerful tools she had. She didn't just write down what she ate; she recorded how she felt before and after eating. "So much of emotional overeating is about disconnecting, not wanting to be in the present moment," she said. "Keeping a food journal brings you face to face with that moment and helps you cultivate a trust that you can handle what we're feeling." There are several free online diaries, such as fitday.com. Maiysha likes myfooddiary.com, which is about $10 a month.
Exercise is critical. Maiysha used to have to give herself pep talks to go to the gym. "I was intimidated by fit people," she said. "My nutritionist called it my 'fat girl mentality.' He made me stop losing weight to have my head catch up with my body." Still, she says she doesn't do anything tremendous when she's working out; the important thing is that she's there. "It's a fake-it-till-you-make it kind of thing," she said. "I have to get on board even if I don't feel like it. Binge eating is about becoming numb, not feeling things. I have to shock myself into consciousness. Nine times out of 10, that means going to the gym and writing down everything [I eat]. As soon as you do that, it's impossible to stay in that numbed-out place."
The elliptical machine is your friend. Though she started on the treadmill—a fast walk for 30 minutes—she now wishes she had gone straight to the elliptical. "I think it's the most effective," she said. She began at level 3 or 4 and worked her way up to level 10 for 45 minutes. "Now I do a step-up mountain method and go in equal increments, maybe up to 12 or 13, then come back down. I usually work out 45 minutes to an hour."
Believe in yourself. A fear of failure made it hard for Maiysha to focus and to commit to things. "I didn't want to try to lose weight because what if I didn't?" she said. "I didn't try music because what if I tanked? [I learned] it's OK to want more for yourself. It's fine. Anyone who feels like you're leaving them behind has their own issues." Maiysha isn't planning to run marathons. But she says she's thrilled to have developed a curiosity about how healthy she could get.
Don't try to lose weight. Instead, focus on getting healthy. Maiysha first talked with a therapist and learned about the nature of addiction and emotional eating. Then she incorporated diet and exercise and began reading Self and Women's Health magazines. Her favorite tip comes from a Women's Health cover model who said that some days she works out for 10 minutes and some days it's two hours. But she does something every day.
Know the signs. Years ago, Maiysha was at her mother's house, reading a book and eating a half-gallon of Breyers orange sherbet and vanilla ice cream right out of the carton. When she realized she'd nearly eaten the entire container, she was mortified, but kept going. She rinsed it out, turned it inside out and threw it away. Then she went to the store, bought another half-gallon and took a scoop out of it, so it looked like the original one. "It's a perfect example of an eating disorder because it involves secrecy, compulsion, mania and panic," she said.
Live one day at a time. "You don't give up 20 years of binge eating overnight," Maiysha said. "You always have the craving, desire or tendency to move in that direction, particularly when you're a stressed-out musician in a recession. Inevitably, I want to eat mindlessly. That's not a luxury I have."