Maris Degener

When you're too brown for some, and not brown enough for others.

Maris Degener
When you're too brown for some, and not brown enough for others.

Something I’ve only recently become aware of is the fact that I only ever painted white, thin bodies.

In other words, I only ever painted bodies that don’t look very much like me. Although I am half-white, I am Chicana. I have the curly hair, the brown skin, and the slender eyes. None of those features ever served as inspiration for the pale faces that were born into my countless portraits of women with no names.

Half of my family comes from Mexico, something that, growing up, felt more like a fairytale than a reality. I would hear stories about the family we still had there, the names and characters that I could picture but never touch. I could see in my mind Carmela, with her long silver hair, standing over her cauldron of soup or pounding corn into masa for tortillas. I could picture the stories my mother told of holding hands with her cousins and the way women walked with baskets on their heads to and from the market. I could see in the one picture I had of my grandmother in her youth the ferocity that arose from a childhood of being an adult by necessity.

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But I could not touch these stories. I was never brought to Mexico, not to where my family came from. And in some ways, the features of my body that carried these stories did not feel real. Or at least, not real enough. They felt erased, negated somehow, by the other parts of me. Not only was I Mexican, I was Spanish. My lineage traces back not only to the Aztec Empire, but it’s interwoven with the Spanish conquistadors. Parts of me contain both the colonized and the colonizers.

This was not something I was always aware of. For many years, I turned away from looking my ancestral history in the face. I was raised in an affluent, white community. I was not taught Spanish, part of the first generation on my mother’s side not to be taught the language they were raised speaking at home. My mother was asked if she was “the nanny” when, as I child, I had my father’s blonde hair. My whiteness was prioritized, perhaps by necessity. And as a result, I never felt I had the right to claim that, yes, I was Mexican. And yes, that history does contribute to who I am and how I experience the world.

I don’t claim to have faced the same kind of discrimination my mother did. I don’t claim to know what it’s like to be spit in the face for daring to be brown in public like she did. I don’t claim to know what it’s like to be bussed to a more affluent (more white) school district like she did. But there are so many things I never questioned about my childhood experience that evoke discomfort in me today.

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I remember wishing my skin to be as pale and white as my best friends growing up. I remember being called beautiful because I was “exotic- looking.” I remember a white aunt calling Mexican immigrants “wetbacks” at the dinner table, seated across from my mother. I remember being asked if I “spoke Mexican,” or if I was sure I “wasn’t a chink” because of my eyes. And I remember sharing these discomforts with others as I grew older, only to be told, “Well, yeah, but you’re mostly white.”

Mostly white. I won’t deny that I benefit from privilege: I certainly do. To some I’m white-passing, I was raised with enough food on the table and access to every resource I needed without fail. But that brownness felt so intangible and so distant that I would sometimes forget it was a part of me.

In second grade, my best friends were two German girls with blonde hair, pale skin, and blue eyes. They were beautiful, of course. But I remember one day realizing that I did not look like them. I remember one day, in an innocent childlike way, one of them saying that our friend group had two blonde girls and one brown-haired girl. It had never occurred to me until that moment that I looked different. Even if half my family history felt distant, others could see it, could at least notice that there was another part of my story.

I suddenly realized that the blonde hair I’d had as a toddler was darkening and thickening and turning curly. I suddenly realized that my skin tanned and grew darker while theirs stayed fair. And in that instant, I remember wishing I could go back in time, back to when I felt more…white.

I didn’t put that label on it, of course. What I called it was “beautiful.” Because all around me the beauty I saw was white. White princesses and white actresses on Disney Channel and white pop stars. I saw Britney Spears and Snow White and Hilary Duff. It wasn’t a conscious thought of, “I want to look more like the white side of my family,” it was a thought of, “I wish I was more beautiful.”

I remember making my mom straighten my hair in the mornings before school every day. I remember when I started wearing my hair curly in high school, people being surprised. I remember being on swim team and trying to stay out of the sun so I wouldn’t get “too dark.” I remember white moms telling my brother and I to be careful playing in the sun for too long during long swim meets, because we “already looked black.”

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When I went through my eating disorder, I started painting. And the interesting thing is, I was painting my emotions, my internal experience. I was taking everything I felt inside and trying to place it somewhere outside of myself: transforming my pain into the eyes and faces of women who could carry my story. In many ways, these pieces were captures of myself, stand-ins for me. And yet…none of them look anything like me. I was drawn, perhaps subconsciously, to thin, white bodies.

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There’s nothing wrong with thin, white bodies. But it wasn’t until recently that I began to ask simply: why? Why was every portrait so dissimilar from what I objectively look like? Why is everything from the neck-up? Why, in an effort to create something beautiful, did I never paint myself?

And so recently, I set out to paint a set of pieces completely opposite of my artistic past. Not all of them would look like myself, but I wanted all of them to embody an enigma in my life: the women I couldn’t see growing up. The women with skin as dark as mine or darker. The women with breasts that weren’t pretty and packaged like the ones I was allowed to see in Victoria’s Secret catalogues. The rolls and folds and creases that were hidden and smoothed away. The hair I didn’t know existed for the longest time because I had never seen it on any woman’s body. The result was four pieces.

In all honesty, I fell in love with them. The process was cathartic and fulfilling in a way art hadn’t felt in a long time. I’d falling into a rhythm of painting what I already knew: and what I already knew didn’t resonate anymore. These pieces felt like an exploration.

And then, a complication arose: I placed them on my website for sale. For months after the documentary, I’d been asked if I was selling my artwork. I knew what they wanted: pieces from the film or ones in the same “genre” as those highlighted portraits. But I also knew that I couldn’t create those anymore. And so I figured, these pieces mean something to me. They took time, effort, and emotional labor to produce. Why shouldn’t these be the ones I put out into the world and fulfill the ask that had come my way time and time again?

Support came and kind words were offered. But then a few messages rolled in:

I’m not trying to attack you, but isn’t this problematic?

Shouldn’t only POC be able to sell black/brown bodies?

and one that struck a chord,

Should a white person have painted these?

The inner conflict that brought these paintings into existence was now being given a voice by others. And I felt it arise in a tidal wave: guilt, shame, doubt, fear, worry, resistance. I took everything down. What I wanted to do was hide.

Until I realized:

Perhaps this story needs to be told, just with more depth.

Something I grapple with is being stuck in the middle. I’ve always been too white or not white enough. I’ve had my identity assumed and erased by white people. I’ve had my identity dismissed as a facade by brown people. I’ve been told I’m too gay and that I’m not gay enough. I’ve been praised for speaking about social justice and criticized for not talking about it enough.

But I think much of it comes from simply not being able to see all the complexities of a human on their surface. Not being able to see at a glance what others have gone through in terms of their ancestral history or understanding their identity. I think we as humans struggle to see others as all the things they are beyond what we can see in a single moment. And I think it’s reasonable to see how mistakes can be made in understanding someone’s positionality when it’s not all laid out on the table in an easily digestible way.

And perhaps I’ve contributed to this. I’ve struggled to find the words to describe who I am and how I experience the world. I’ve struggled to articulate how a queer woman can be in a long-term relationship with a straight, white man. I’ve struggled to explain how my family history has played out. And I’ve struggled to explain how painful it feels to have my experience erased, neglected, or spoken-over because someone assumes that I am or am not “something.”

After the film came out, Laura was asked by an interviewer, “How do you think Maris’s story was affected by her being a woman of color?”

Laura shared with me that she had never considered that question, in all the time we’d worked together and all the time we’d translated my story into film. But hearing that question stirred something up inside of me: a kind of deep recognition part of me had been waiting for. Not even a recognition from an outside source, but something that called on me to share the intricacies of being made up of so many identities, being seen in so many ways by so many different people. It felt like permission to begin to unravel something that had felt too complicated to even look at growing up.

I felt like a good place to begin was my art. And personally, it was. But perhaps these words, this perspective into my experience was necessary, too. Because the reality is, conversations on race, justice, equality…they are not binary discussions. Because none of us are binary in our existence: we are not “either, or.” We are diverse both as a population, and within ourselves as individuals.

I am still trying to understand who I am and how that identity flavors my experience of the world. I am still trying to understand where my limitations are and where my strengths are. I am still coming to terms with the fact that the way I see myself and the way others see me may never be quite aligned. And I am still untangling the fact that so much of me feels like not enough.

Not brown enough, not white enough. Not gay enough, not straight enough. Somewhere in the middle where things can hurt but that hurt doesn’t matter.

I have no resolution here yet. Perhaps there was nothing wrong with selling the paintings, perhaps there was: I don’t think I’m the best person to make that call. I know that letting them live here, in the context of their story and the conversation they sparked, feels right.

For now, all I can do is continue to untangle the stories of my childhood and try to understand how I am the person I now am.

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