March 24, 2016

WEISSMANN | Vanity Fair

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In the house where my brother lives, there are mirrors everywhere. There must be 15 or 16 of them lining the halls; circular mirrors with ornate frames, squares mirrors lined with old photographs, the floor-to-ceiling ones that interfere with normal depth perception. Everywhere I am I can see myself turning corners and gliding down the slippery wooden hallways and opening interior doors. I have an ugly affair with mirrors, not unlike a relationship with a disapproving grandmother whom you frequently check in on. Mirrors usually worsen my mood, yet they are magnetic to me — I glance at my reflection at every pass, revolving slowly like a microwavable pizza, catching all my angles. Fix that stray hair, tuck this in, don’t stand like that. I think mirrors offer an opportunity to prove to myself I am not as strange looking as I think. Only half the time am I satisfied.

We’re just visiting this house — visiting my brother, more specifically, in the Polish town he’s lived in for the past year. It’s been an emotionally heavy trip so far. We arrived Tuesday, on the day of the Brussels attacks, and today we drove 45 minutes to visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps. We left for Auschwitz in the early morning, and the weather here is just cold enough to be bothersome when the sun is behind the clouds. There are four mirrors in the foyer alone, and as we buttoned our coats I glanced into the nearest one. I remember being unhappy with my hair, which I had thrown into a ponytail in the wake of an uneasy night’s sleep in a foreign land.

The Nazi camps were, to say the least, chilling. Most of what a typical tour group views is original and largely untouched, so it’s no great stretch of the imagination. Walking through the buildings where prisoners lived, worked and perished is an experience that transcends daily life and consumes all immediate thought, almost like being in a long movie — when you leave, you’re not sure how much time has passed and you can’t remember what you were thinking about beforehand.

One such building displayed the sparse, overcrowded rooms where prisoners lived. On the walls outside the rooms were thousands of photographs, set up like mug shots, taken of each individual person upon their arrival and including their name, age, and the dates they entered Auschwitz and died there. For some, mere days separate those two dates. Very few people were smiling, many of them had matted hair and tired eyes. You can take many tidbits of thought from visiting a Nazi death camp, but what I kept thinking was how little vanity mattered to these people, even before facing the horrors of Auschwitz. And how, faced with such challenges, consideration towards looking nice is laughable. Aesthetic appearance seems to me the lowest on the totem pole of human needs, and never more than when I was facing those faces.

Society might disagree. Explicitly they (the royal “they”) will tell you that Beauty Is On The Inside and It’s What’s Inside That Counts and The Most Beautiful People Are Happy On The Inside. But subtly, they will ply you with images and commercials and magazines that scream outer beauty and contouring and flatter your figure! We are torn between two ideals. It’s as if it’s an unspoken rule, we are not allowed to talk about how much we care whether or not we are pretty.

But how can we look at something like what happened at Auschwitz and still care about whether our eyebrows look right or our shoes match what the celebrities are wearing? After my visit, the topic of human vanity is on my mind quite a bit. When you think about how quickly life moves and what little impact your appearance makes in your daily life, it seems silly to care inordinately about hair and clothes. It seems unimportant. It seems superficial. I have begun to think it would be far better to go through life without constantly checking your own reflection, focusing instead on being both interesting and interested. On value over vanity.

So even though the immediate memory of Auschwitz will fade and regular life will supersede, I have resolved to thrown away pride where my looks are concerned. Who cares if my hair is unkempt? Who cares if I am wearing socks with sandals? I am an interesting person; I don’t worry about what people think of how I look. Of course, saying that is simple. Embodying that is pretty damn hard.

This morning, when I go down the hall for breakfast, I peek at exactly zero mirrors.

Ruth Weissmann is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at raw287@cornell.edu. A Word to the Weiss appears alternate Fridays this semester.    

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