Strong is the New Skinny

  • By:  Kindra McDonald Greene

Meet three local women who are becoming stronger in more ways than one.

The image of a bodybuilder may bring to mind a bulked-up, mirror-gazing man, but the world of female bodybuilders is growing and has come a long way from the circus strongwoman acts of the 1900s. Fast forward to 1977 when Gina LaSpina won the first female bodybuilding competition in Canton, Ohio, where she was judged on her muscular development, symmetry, and physique presentation.

The rise of the feminist movement helped propel female bodybuilding further. Today if you step into most weight rooms, you’ll often see as many women working out as men. Instagram’s popularity has also raised awareness of female bodybuilders (FBB). FBB competitors post transformation and stage-ready posed photos with hashtags like #girlswholift #musclegirls and #msolympia, showing that strong is definitely the new skinny.

As is the case with every other sport, women have had to fight for their place in a male-dominated field. Even four decades later, awards and compensation for female bodybuilders are only slightly more than half of their male counterparts.

The National Physique Committee (NPC) introduced expanded divisions which in the last decade has allowed for a greater number of women to compete, with categories such as fitness and figure that look at muscle tone and symmetry over sheer muscle mass. In all categories, FBB are empowered and fierce representations of the changing face of bodybuilding. Let’s meet three local women who define strength inside and out.

Jessica Brenneman: Cancer Survivor

“Anyone Can Do Bodybuilding.”

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Chesapeake resident Jessica Brenneman had her worst fear confirmed at age 29. The single mother of two young daughters faced a breast cancer diagnosis. At her most vulnerable, with her body fighting against her, weakened by chemotherapy and radiation, she took on the fight of her life through bodybuilding.

Jessica is a former Navy service member and currently works as a DoD police officer at Norfolk Naval Shipyard. During her active duty service, she competed in CrossFit. In March 2018, at 29 she was diagnosed with breast cancer and was fitted with a power port to supply her treatments. She tried to continue her CrossFit routine, but the rapid movements kept flipping the port and she had to stop.

Her friends recommended a Virginia Beach fitness trainer who owns Flex Gym in Virginia Beach. “I needed something competitive to keep my mind off the cancer, so I went straight to the owner and said, ‘I’m undergoing radiation treatment, but I want to start bodybuilding. Do you think I can do it?’” That very week, Jessica was on a three-day schedule to work one-on-one with a bodybuilding trainer.

Much of bodybuilding involves nutrition. For Jessica, this nutrition went hand in hand with her fight against cancer. “My oncologist sent me to a nutritionist who showed me the foods that prevent and fight cancer,” she said. “I worked on lean proteins, no red meat, lots of leafy greens, and I knew I was doing everything I could to heal my body and fight cancer.” She was also working muscle groups and changing her body on a weekly basis, growing leaner, stronger, and powerful inside and out.

At the time she didn’t know any female bodybuilders and admits to not knowing entirely what she was getting into, but she knew she needed to not think about cancer. “Anyone can do bodybuilding,” Jessica says, “But you have to be mentally, emotionally, and physically 110 percent committed. If someone has the determination to get up on stage and do this, they can. I did it.”

Driven by both her competitive nature and her need to heal her body, Jessica says bodybuilding was the perfect fit. “I’m always looking to set the next goal and challenge myself,” she said. “My number one challenge was beating cancer, and looking at my kids … I have to do something which motivates me every day for them.”

Jessica credits bodybuilding for her recovery and remarkable blood work. “In bodybuilding you actually learn about the anatomy of your body, and it helped me to strengthen myself post-surgery,” she said. “I shocked my doctor by doing rows and lat pull downs at half my body weight. After surgery my body knew something was different, but it compensates.”

Jessica is truly a fighter and is humbled by the inspiration she has become. Even in the locker room before the competition, women approached her to share stories of losing loved ones to breast cancer.

“You can take my ta-ta’s, you can take my hair, but you can never take my fight!” These are the words Jessica lives with every day whether in the gym, doing homework with her daughters, or preparing for another surgery. There’s no battle she can’t conquer.

Mercedes Bazemore Has Found the Fountain of Youth

“Bodybuilding Helps You Age Gracefully”

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Meeting Mercedes Bazemore is like meeting the poster woman for fitness. She is months away from 62, but it would take a birth certificate to convince me of her age. When we meet, she sets down a stack of magazines close to a foot tall—Flex, IronMan and NPC News—that feature her on the cover or highlighted in their glossy pages.

She casually mentions she had a total hip replacement mid-December and was back to work at Flex Gym three weeks later. “It just goes to show how much bodybuilding does to strengthen your muscles and support your joints,” she said.

Mercedes has always been an athlete, starting as a small child playing sports to serving on a softball team as a young mother of two. At age 36 she started developing symptoms of arthritis in her lower back, which stopped her from playing softball, but pushed her into the gym.

“I saw my first bodybuilding competition in the early 1980s and really fell in love with the physique and the look,” she said. “I was thinking more and more about lifting weights and healing my back. Bodybuilding is about building up the muscles around the joints.”

At 37, Mercedes was working out and training at a local women’s gym and started seeking out bodybuilding trainers. “I couldn’t get what I needed at my gym, and I was introduced to Al Walke at Flex Gym. I asked him if he thought I had what it takes, and he said yes, but not to come back until I was ready.”

Mercedes started training seriously. In 1998 at age 40, she entered her first bodybuilding competition. “When I first stepped on stage, I felt like my heart had left my body and I had to walk fast to get it back,” she said. “I was the overall winner, competing against 18-year-olds. I was hooked.”

Mercedes kept on winning. That year she won the Virginia State National Physical Council show, which qualified her as a national competitor, and turned professional at 43. “I found it was all about nutrition,” Mercedes said. “I saw all these women killing themselves at the gym on cardio equipment, but not eating right. People don’t eat [junk food] because they love it. It’s because they’re addicted. Once you realize you’re addicted to sugar and start eating fresh vegetables, lean meats, and proteins, your body changes.”

“Bodybuilding is like the fountain of youth,” she continued. “It teaches you a lifestyle of youth and healthful living. It is aging gracefully. I’ve come too far to go back to where I was.” 

After two decades of competing professionally at the highest levels, Mercedes reached the peak of what she believed her body could do and began training and coaching others. In May 2018 her trainer, mentor, and motivator, Al Walke, passed away. Before he passed, he told her that her time wasn’t over and that she could get back into a competition.

“He really pushed me, and I worked at it,” she said. “When he passed, I knew I had to do it for him. I didn’t care about coming in last, I just wanted to show him I could do it.” In 2019 at age 60, Mercedes competed and received the highest score she’d ever had in any professional contest.

“I’m not done yet. If I can go on stage, I will, just to motivate others,” she said. There’s a national contest in 2021, and Mercedes plans to be on stage.

Karen Redmond: Former Ultra-Marathoner

“Bodybuilding is Life Changing”

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Karen Redmond, a 40-year-old business owner from Virginia Beach, transitioned from ultra-marathoner to bodybuilder in the last two years. No stranger to the gym, Karen thrives on pushing herself to the limit. “I’ve always been intrigued by bodybuilding, but in my 30s I put that dream on hold to push myself as a marathon runner while I still had the legs to do so,” she said. “In two and a half years I ran 30 marathons and ultramarathons, but in 2016 while in the middle of a 50k race in Savannah, I just lost the joy for it. I didn’t want to do it anymore.”

Karen had reached her peak in running and felt like she had worn her body down with the pounding of her feet. It was time to build her body back up. In 2018 she committed herself to bodybuilding.

“It really started with the nutrition track,” she said. “There’s a misconception that you have to spend hours and hours at the gym for bodybuilding, but it’s more about figuring out what works best for your body nutritionally, and then working the muscle groups three hours a week.”

Once Karen had committed to competing, she was completely focused on getting to that point. It meant losing 40 pounds and competing against herself to do it.

Her first competition was in December 2018, and to her this competition meant feeling like she had the real bodybuilding experience. “I felt like if I could get through this process, then I could get through anything,” she said. “I wanted my body to reach its maximum capacity.”

She admits to feeling scared to death in her first stage competition. “You can see it in my photos. I’m an introvert, and to step on stage in the skimpiest bathing suit and be judged was terrifying, but that was a hurdle to overcome,” she recalled. “My next step was to beat that woman who I was. In my next competition, you can see from the photos, I was someone new. I was smiling, confident, and loving the life I had made.”

While her physical body may not have looked different between the two competitions, it was clear she had changed by the confident smile on her face and the fight in her eyes.

“This was about what I had to learn about myself,” Karen said. “Bodybuilding is discipline. It’s like nothing I’ve ever been through. Even running 40 miles didn’t prepare me. With running, it’s one day and it’s done. With bodybuilding, it’s year-round. This is a change in your life that requires 100 percent focus and maturity, but it is life changing.”

“This is the best sport to help with mental health,” she continued. “There is a great community of people, and there is nothing but support and love when you have the right people behind you. This just makes me happy.”

After meeting these women, I have no excuse for not going to the gym this week. These women are more than inspiring. They are proof of the ability to change and a belief in resiliency. They have come to know what their bodies are capable of, and by stretching their bodies to the limits, they have found what they can overcome. Strength is more than the physical. It’s the unseen resolve, courage, and commitment to push ourselves. No matter how minor you think your impact is, you can inspire others by example, as these women have done.

Kindra McDonald Greene is a poet, educator, and a writer. She teaches at The Muse Writers Center and lives, hikes, and bakes with her husband in the City of Mermaids. Visit www.kindramcdonald.com.

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