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Sharon Bruneau’s tall, lean, and shapely figure allowed her to work as a fashion model when she was a youngster, but at the same time, she was always very physical and active. One day, she opened a bodybuilding magazine and saw a photo of the first Ms. Olympia bodybuilding champion, Rachel McLish. Very soon after, she was in the gym trying to develop the same kind of aesthetic, shapely muscle.
“Bodybuilding for women was just getting started back in the 1980s,” Bruneau says, “But I switched almost immediately from wanting to be a fashion model to training to become a competitive bodybuilder.
No type of exercise actually changes the shape of a muscle, except that it can make muscle fibers bigger. So as Bruneau started to gain muscle, her long, lean body type stayed with her as she grew.
As impressive as she was, Bruneau admits to having been somewhat self-conscious about her body — this was, after all, a long time ago, at a time when this kind of physique was still pretty rare. Plus, she was used to looking like a fashion model. So when she was on the beach in a bikini, she not only thought everyone was staring at her — they actually were!
But she eventually got to the point where she entered and won a bodybuilding contest and soon qualified as an IFBB pro. Bruneau also became hugely popular with the fans and was featured in and on the covers of most of the magazines, particularly Joe Weider’s Muscle & Fitness. As an Indigenous Canadian woman, she was proud to represent her heritage in the fitness industry.
At one point Bruneau, one of the most popular of female bodybuilders at the time, began to view herself as being “too big.” Any of us are liable to see ourselves very differently than we are perceived by the rest of the world, and self-doubt can be the most difficult obstacle to overcome. So although she continued to train and do photo sessions, at one point Bruneau no longer pursued her pro bodybuilding goals and aspirations.
“Looking back,” she says, “I have no idea where this insecurity came from. Nowadays, I love how I looked during that point in my career. So I know now that I retired from competition way too early.” Now, she shares the importance of self-love with the next generation.
“When I work with young women nowadays,” says Bruneau, “I always emphasize the need to be true to yourself and pursue your dreams. Be your best friend and supporter, not your worst enemy and biggest detractor. Decide that you want and go for it!”
Here are some photos I was fortunate enough to take of Bruneau over the years.
Bill Dobbins is a legendary bodybuilding photographer and founding editor of FLEX magazine.
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