MORAGA -- It was Love Your Body Week at Saint Mary's College, and the six men on a Men & Body Image panel were calm, well-coifed and confessional.
"I first noticed my body when I was 26," admitted Carl Thelen, Director of Web Services and Instructional Technology. "I was getting fat in the belly."
"As a kid, I was always the skinniest," Senior Admissions Counselor Pedro Ramirez as part of this mid-February panel. "I've always been the small one and needed to compensate for that."
SMC freshman Guy Whittall-Scherf said that during high school, he admired the impossibly ripped abs of Japanese anime series "Dragon Ball Z," but at 6-foot-2 and 130 pounds, his body type was unlikely to achieve gym rat muscularity.
School of Education faculty member Peter Alter, senior Michael Urbina and Dr. Alireza Rezapour, Health and Wellness Center director, said the definition of masculinity is constantly evolving.
A changing landscape was the backdrop for the Moraga college's four-day investigation of self-love, psychological stability and physical health. Hosted by the Women's Resource Center in partnership with other SMC departments, "Mirror-less Monday" and "Heart Your Parts" (students applied heart-shaped patches to favorite body parts) were geared to boost self-esteem.
The six-man panel demonstrated the struggle -- and a certain victory -- over societal pressure on men to be big, built, and broadcasting what Alter called "chimpanzee anger and aggression."
"Shaved heads, beards, muscles -- none of that matters," declared Thelen.
Perhaps, but Alter said he once felt the need for Arnold Schwarzenegger-size pecs to compensate for being an elementary school teacher, a profession he said was "sort of feminine." And Rezapour, who is Iranian, said misperceptions about Muslims and Middle Easterners during the 1980s and 90s caused him to gravitate to a toned-down look. Trim, both in his physique and facial hair, he admitted to discomfort while existing in the crosshairs of differing cultures. In traditional Persian stories, a man without a beard wasn't trustworthy, because men who broke promises were forced to shave. But portrayals of terrorists were often bearded men, and Rezapour -- hoping for increased awareness -- said, "We have a responsibility to teach and learn from each other."
The media's impact on men's self image pushed buttons for everyone on the panel. Whether bombarded by commercials showing "inadequate" men who can't even pick out auto insurance or encouraged through films and television to "gender police" their tone of voice when speaking to men who are taller, more buff or wealthier, establishing a sure sense of self was an ongoing challenge.
"I looked up to baseball stars, because a lot of them were Latino," Ramirez said. "Later, I was happy when Freddy Prinze and George Lopez got their shows. But for the most part, you don't see a small Latino man on television."
Negative messages even come from family. At a pool party, Thelen's mother strongly suggested he don a T-shirt. "She told me I didn't have the most attractive chest. She's proud of her sons, but probably not the fact we're a little slack."
Compensation was common: As a freshman, Urbina joined the ROTC and played varsity rugby, hoping to "keep up with a hypermasculine, I-can-beat-up-anybody masculinity." Rezapour, as a 14-year-old immigrant to the United States, chewed tobacco he remembered tasted terrible ... until a wise adult asked him why he wanted his mouth to be an ashtray.
Asked about self-image advantages each man enjoyed, Whittall-Scherf said, "There's something powerful about looking down on people: being tall -- and white -- has helped."
The men agreed that ethnicity and economic status are powerful influencers. Ramirez said that because 30 percent of SMC students come from low-income families, the area's wealth can be overwhelming.
"There are expectations, and the social norm is a huge cultural shift," he said. Alter said faculty and staff feel the pressure, too. "With affluence comes an expectation of being in shape, wearing expensive fitness brands that highlight status."
Urbina came from a lower socioeconomic environment, where access to healthy foods were a privilege, and where local establishments serving them were far too pricey for many students.
Beyond body image, compassion, it was evident, is a major player in defining 21st century masculinity. An audience member shared his experience as a disabled person who struggles with weight issues.
"We need to not demonize people who are overweight: it might be out of their control," Whittall-Scherf said. Others on the panel suggested the student find a supportive community: men (and women) devoted to breaking the cycle of short-lived and shallow categorization.