Side Effects May Vary: Health as an identity

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Maddie Sheifer

We live in a world where exercise and fitness are valued across all generations. Kids play sports, young adults take workout classes, senior citizens attend water aerobics. It seems as though these activities are pervasive in 21st-century culture. 

I remember the exact day of my first swim practice as a 7-year-old.

It was a sunny Tuesday afternoon right after Memorial Day, and all the outdoor pools had just opened for the summer. 

Several weeks prior to the beginning of the season, my parents were incredibly excited for me to pursue this experience. I have distinct memories of going to swim shops in my town to get fitted for suits and purchasing all of the gear this new sport would require. 

I even brought my goggles in for my class’s end-of-the-year show-and-tell session about what we were looking forward to that summer.

“Mommy, I LOVED it!” I remember sharing with her on the pool deck after the first practice had culminated.

While my countless summers on the Fox Mill Woods Swim and Tennis Club pool deck have ultimately blurred together, the sport my parents once pushed me to try for fun became so much more as I grew older.

A few summers after my first season, I started swimming on a club team. Training in the water year-round and having the opportunity to compete and get faster was not only exciting, but it also became a routine for me by the time I was in middle school.

Amid all of the changes that came about in middle school, I knew for sure was who I was. I remember telling myself: “I am a swimmer. I am an athlete. And I work hard.”

This mindset stuck with me throughout the rest of my time at home, and the sport enhanced my life in so many ways.

Joining my high school’s team brought me an amazing network of teammates and coaches who made me feel part of a community. The rigid practice schedule I kept forced me to stay organized, manage my time well and value physical fitness in ways I didn’t even realize until years later.

But most of all, it was my identity. People knew me as “Maddie, she’s a swimmer.” “Maddie, who can never hang out because she has practice and meets.” “Maddie, who’s always at the pool.”

I felt comfortable with this label, and it played a major role in the development of my self-confidence. However, all this came tumbling down my last year of high school. 

Late in the spring of my junior year, I developed a nasty overuse injury in my right shoulder. Because of my commitment to the sport, I attempted to push through it. One thing led to another and I could no longer keep the schedule I so strongly identified with. I decided at the end of my senior year season that I would no longer be “Maddie the swimmer.”

However, I was determined to stay “Maddie the athlete.” 

February of my senior year, I felt at a loss from a fitness standpoint. Other than my usual “dry land” practices, which incorporated a lot of bodyweight exercises out of the water, I really had no other understanding of fitness outside of the pool. My identity was in re-creation mode, and I needed to act fast. 

I immediately turned to Google to find alternatives to fill the space in my life that swimming had taken for so long. Soon, I found apps for HIIT programs (I didn’t even know what HIIT was), online workout classes, subscriptions for bodyweight circuits and much more.

After a few quick searches on the Internet, I realized I had much to learn about. Or did I…

This past summer, a New York Times article on my Facebook feed came up that struck a chord with me and brought me back to how lost I felt, nearly two-and-a-half years later

The article touches on a variety of issues related to wellness culture and women’s health. The part that stuck with me most is the author’s commentary on the marketing this industry pushes out to women, specifically young and vulnerable women. 

Despite the differences between what these messages claim to offer, they all share the same idea. Wellness is actually a code for diet, and the only way to truly feel good about yourself is to make yourself smaller. 

In a world where we are receiving marketing messages at historically high rates (thank you, Internet), it is all the more important that young women learn how to screen what we see and handle the messages in a healthy way.

I have seen myself and many peers fall victim to these messages and it is not something easy to retreat from.

My goal with this column is to highlight areas where young women, and college students in general, can find a way to balance what we see with how we act. After dealing with these feelings for the last few years, I now identify myself as someone who values fitness and health, but within reason. I hope you’ll stay tuned.

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