Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves (And Each Other)

Love ’em or hate ’em, girl siblings teach us about our global sisterhood

There are no women in the world who are more like me, and less like me, than my five sisters. They inspire my strongest, most passionate feelings. These are the only women I fight for and fight with. The only women I have known for the duration of their lives. I don’t have any memories at all before Beth was born.

Our shared childhood was defined by trips to hospital, monitoring my mother’s swelling body, watching for tiny babies who would become little women, wearing each other’s dresses, stealing toys, singing with each other, screaming at each other, laughing, crying, hugging and hitting. Constantly trying to draw boundaries, knowing that we’re fighting a losing battle. Beth has only just forgiven me for accidentally wearing her (clean) knickers, in 1998. 

When we’re together, we’re every age, all at once. How can Maddy and Dotty, the youngest, the twins, be 30 next year? How can Grace be buying Lego for her children, when it’s not that long since she begged for the big Lego fire engine for Christmas? How can Livvy be professionally responsible for making giant lending decisions when I still vividly remember the morning she crawled out onto the patio and ate a giant slug? I’m the same – with my sisters, I’m simultaneously eight and bossy, fourteen and sulky, and 37 and overwhelmed with joyous, frightening, life-altering love.

To me, sisterhood has always been a global and local notion. It’s a word that means I can love women, even when I don’t always feel as though I like them very much. When I was growing up in a house filled with girls and women, the liking was a challenge.

To be completely candid, I rarely compare myself with men. I’m not usually especially interested in anything they are doing

More often than not, my sisters were my competition. I still feel ashamed of the time I refused to go and see Grace get her Blue Peter badge, or when Beth got better GCSEs than I did and I cried. I constantly compared myself with my sisters, and always found myself wanting. It has taken me years to realise these comparisons are pointless. We might be similar, but we’re not the same.

In 2022, sisterhood is a deceptively complicated notion, as is feminism itself. It sounds like branding. It’s shorthand for the slogans of love, tenderness and solidarity that look so good on T-shirts. If we don’t all love each other, we’re letting the side down. Philosophically speaking, we’re all expected to live in the same house and like it. I suspect we often expect more of each other, even when our proximity to each other makes us feel anxious and fractious. I admit to it.

To be completely candid, I rarely compare myself with men. This isn’t because I assume they are going to be stronger or more successful than I am, but because I’m not usually especially interested in anything they are doing. If, over the course of my day, a man lets me down, or says something rude, or makes my working life a little bit harder, I’m disappointed, but not surprised. If a woman does the same thing, I feel betrayed. Inside, I’m screaming, “But I thought we were on the same team!”

If my biological sisters have taught me anything about the concept of sisterhood, it’s that that sometimes there needs to be an “I” in the team. Women succeed when we give each other space to do so. We’re all as different as we are similar, and while it’s natural to search out and celebrate the latter, understanding the former is what will make us strong. 

Beth and I fought fiercely because we were so desperate to be more like each other, and we struggled to make sense of our differences. When she struggled to fit in at school, I was desperate for her to be happy in a way I could understand. She was – and still is – wonderfully weird.

Because of the way I grew up, I was in my early twenties before I learned to describe myself as a feminist

I’m ashamed it took me so long to celebrate this, and that I encouraged her to supress her personality and keep her head down. Yet – even though I was a meek, mousy overachiever who never dared to answer back, I took my life into my hands and shouted at a teacher who hadn’t praised a story Beth had written. I think this might be the real essence of sisterhood. It’s not about sweetness and sharing, but taking risks – stepping up and protecting each other.

Because of the way I grew up, I was in my early twenties before I learned to describe myself as a feminist. I’d been surrounded by women for most of my life. My sisters and I attended an all-girls school, an experience I feel mixed about. At times, the atmosphere was toxic. We never challenged it. “Girls are just naturally bitchier than boys,” we’d say, sadly, when a teacher administered a telling-off about rumoured bullying, or a friendship turned sour.

Sometimes, at school, my sister status felt like a bit of a handicap. Only now do I realise that many of my friends were only children or had a single sibling – usually a brother. I struggled with their boundaries. I didn’t know that there were jokes you weren’t supposed to make with other girls, things you couldn’t say. In my big family, physical functions were hilarious, at school they were a source of shame. I’d seen my sisters’ bodies, and they had seen mine. But when I was among my peers, my body became something to feel anxious and ashamed of. Suddenly, my body was too big, bigger than everyone’s, and it mattered.

It took me a lifetime to unlearn this, and to work out something significant about sisterhood. I loved my sisters and I hated to see them subjected to the same pressures as me. I didn’t want them to worry about every mouthful of food they ate, or what size jeans they wore. I wanted them to look at themselves and see what I saw – brilliant, beautiful women. Women who looked like me.

Sisterhood, I realised, was shouting back for a woman you love, even though you’d never dare to do it for yourself

I couldn’t keep hating what I saw in the mirror, because I was forced to recognise what I loved about it too. And that didn’t just stop with my sisters. Whenever I struggled with anything, whenever I felt embarrassed, ashamed or inadequate, I could see other women everywhere who were struggling too. We might not have much in common, but we were all united by our vulnerabilities. Which weren’t real vulnerabilities, at all, but cultural hang-ups, ways to keep women small, and struggling to keep up. Invented problems that would encourage us to buy things.

At school, with other young women, I thought the goal was to become perfect by resisting every stumble, giggle and fart. As I learned more about feminism, I realised I owed it to all of my sisters to be proudly imperfect. Not to submit silently and follow the near-impossible rules – but to show that I could be too big, too loud, too clumsy – and happy.

Colluding in every single stupid standard set for women was the antithesis of sisterhood. Sisterhood, I realised, was shouting back for a woman you love, even though you’d never dare to do it for yourself. Sisterhood was about taking up space, making room for all the women who seem nothing like us, and simply trusting that they must be a little bit like us. If I can share genes with women who look and behave like my photographic negatives, there must be something about womanhood that unites us all. 

Toni Morrison wrote “A sister can be seen as someone who is both ourselves and very much not ourselves – a special kind of double.” This is the essence of sisterhood. Our differences can be captivating, intriguing – and maddening. But our similarities are a source of strength. When we support each other, we succeed together. I believe sisterhood is a responsibility, a duty, and occasionally a burden. Yet ultimately it is a source of love. 

Daisy Buchanan is a writer and broadcaster, and host of the chart-topping “You’re Booked” literary podcast. She’s the author of best-selling novel “Insatiable”, and her new novel “Careering, a Love Story about Work, Self-Worth and Modern Womanhood”, is published on 10 March

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