Thought Catalog

I Am The Smart One, She’s Just My Sister

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My sister is a bombshell.

She’s got long blond hair and curves and when she walks into a room, men act like a literal bomb’s gone off. One time, our mom scolded me by asking, “You know how Tina Fey is beautiful when she’s Tina Fey and not as beautiful when she’s Liz Lemon? Why do you insist on Liz Lemon-ing yourself?” Direct quote.

Because we’re so different, my sister’s beauty has always been a game to me. I tell someone I’ve just met about my tall, blond little sister and when they don’t believe me I pull up a photo of her on Facebook. “Isn’t it funny?” I say. “She looks like Barbie.” In the particular picture I usually use for this joke, she’s wearing a skintight sequin purple mini-dress, her back arched so her long bright hair cascades down her back, her tan evident, her teeth spotlessly white. She looks like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian had a model-y baby in a test tube full of glitter.

The reaction from new friends is almost always a stunned look at my phone and then back up to me. How is it possible that someone who looks like that could be sisters with someone who looks like me?

“This explains your entire personality,” my friend Kevin told me, handing me back my phone after flipping through my sister’s profile pictures.

Growing up with the perception that I was “the un-pretty sister,” I assumed I was therefore “ugly,” which by conventional standards isn’t true. But I closed myself off and buried my head in books. I never got invites to slumber parties. Whenever a boy would express interest, I’d ignore it, believing him to be joking or delusional. How could someone ever be attracted to me when she existed?

All our lives, family friends and strangers and anyone who came across us both, would say almost the same exact compliment, “You’re so pretty,” they’d tell her and then turn to me, “And you’re so smart.”

A couple months ago, our grandfather passed away and I came home to South Florida from New York City for the first time in a year. I hadn’t seen my sister in some time; she’d barely graduated from high school and then spent six months doing who-knows-what in Los Angeles before my parents called her home. Meanwhile, I’d graduated from a four-year college and had a job in writing.

My sister and I have always gotten along despite our differences and the funeral allowed us to spend some time together. Both of us were now “adults” and she had just started attending community college in Tallahassee.

Bored, we drove to the local mall to walk around. She bought a pair of Ray Ban sunglasses and talked me into an under-eye concealer I never would have spent money on otherwise. On the way home, the car grew silent. I thanked her for the makeup recommendation and she shrugged.

“That’s the only kind of thing I really know about,” she’d said.

“Sure,” I replied. “You know how to do all the right things to be beautiful.”

I meant the remark to be casual but suddenly, she was angry. “Well, I don’t have anything else going for me like you do!”

Like I do?! I thought. What could someone who looks like her possibly think I have??

Throughout high school, she’d been a Queen Bee, while I’d been teased mercilessly. Why was she now showing signs that she felt less-than? I hadn’t been around during her post-high school year of confusion, but I realized it must have caused some damage.

You see, while I was hearing “You’re so smart, and not pretty,” I realized that she was hearing, “You’re so pretty, and not smart.” The “compliment” had taken its toll on both of us – just in different, equally detrimental ways. It implied to her that because she was good-looking, she had to also be stupid and it implied to me that because I was smart, I could not also be pretty. Growing up, I stewed in my jealousy of her, ignorant that all the while, she was also jealous of me.

In the car, I pressed her on what she meant and she admitted she’d gone to LA to escape what she thought to be the inevitable truth of her stupidity: why apply herself in school or attempt to attend college when getting rejected would validate everything she already felt about her intelligence? Better to never try, she told me, than to try and fail.

Meanwhile, on the opposite coast, hadn’t I been doing the exact same thing? While everything in my professional life validated my intellect, I couldn’t get close to people on an emotional level. I couldn’t have a real relationship that wasn’t cuddling with my Macbook. I couldn’t trust friends. Why try, I reasoned, when I clearly wasn’t pretty enough for anyone to love?

My whole life I’d believed myself to be the victimized sibling, wearing my intelligence and professional success like a suit of self-righteous armor. And right next to me, there was someone else suffering in the same way. We’d both been done a disservice by people who think young women can only be one or the other: smart or pretty. This is what you are forever. You can never, ever be the other one.

On that drive home, I realized that her beauty doesn’t make my sister the enemy. It makes her the only person who could possibly understand. TC mark

image – Michael Donovan

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    • http://www.nosexcity.com NoSexCity

      The title is an Olsen sister movie reference, right?

      • Anonymous

        Yep!

        • Anonymous

          Awesome title

        • Anonymous

          Steph’s idea!

        • http://www.nosexcity.com NoSexCity

          The article is good, but the title ‘made’ it. Kudos.

    • guest

      Jesus. I’m the youngest of three girls, and all I’ve heard my entire life is how beautiful they are – and I don’t look like either one of them. It took me years to realize that they were told the same thing about me. Thank you for this.

      • beatrice

        is it something about 3rd sisters that look totally different from the first 2? I’m a third sister too but thank goodness me and my sisters grew up thinking that we were intelligent and beautiful

    • Aurora

      Fraternal twins have it bad because many of us don’t look anything alike. Making one pretty and one smart. Etc. You’be got the idea.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Megan-Shafer/1169280047 Megan Shafer

      this is the exact relationship my younger sister and i have.

    • Jordan

      Very nice piece, I’m gad you (in real life, or at least for the sake of the piece) took stock in her side of the issue, and didn’t just consider it #prettygirlproblems

      • Anonymous

        Thank you. I wanted to make it clear that she is not stupid at all, she was just made to think she is.

        • Guest

          Well it does sound like she’s kinda dumb….

        • Anonymous

          She’s not dumb at all.

    • Daily tc reader

      loved

    • Gab

      This reminds me of me and my sister, and my name is Gabrielle, hitting close to home here

    • Uhnonnymus

      Aw this was cute. I think most siblings have this dynamic, you always feel like you’re the “other one.”

    • Chelsee

      creepy but I found you and your sister on facebook, and I think you may have over-glorified her beauty… and under-glorified your own. Honest truth. 

      • Anonymous

        Thanks. That’s sort of the thing, isn’t it? She’s actually smart, too. It’s all in both our heads.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1363230138 Michael Koh

        “creepy” 

        stop. 

        • Chelsee

          asshole

      • Maxwell Smart

         I agree. You’re both pretty, but I prefer brunettes and am not so into tanning, so I actually found you more attractive.

      • http://fastfoodies.org Briana

        also, you have more facebook friends than she does…LOOKS LIKE WE KNOW WHO THE WINNER IS, HERE.

      • kate

        yo i did the same thing

    • Capturethebomb

      This is the same way I feel…  This has actually brought me some confidence.  Thanks.

    • http://twitter.com/27messes 27messes

      awesome and relatable.

    • Logistics

      I am so in love with this piece! I feel like you get me

    • http://www.facebook.com/sarah.n.knutson Sarah N. Knutson

      I totally understand. I dated a guy who, while dating me, started seeing another girl, and he used “You’re so smart, and not pretty” (me) versus “You’re so pretty, and not smart” (her). It did a number on both of us, but her and I are now very good friends. I’m glad to hear you and your sister have found a new side to that coin.

      • Inadelle

        Ouch. What an ass, you’re the better for it.

        Glad you sorted it with the other girl. I love stories like these because I hate the notion of female competiton when actually we girls should stick together.

    • Inadelle

      This hits close to home. Except my sister buys into it and completely rejects anything to do with beauty…. Unless it’s defensive comments or which she disparagingly picks on one of my flaws.

      I wish people would just be appreciative of different aspects of a person. There will always be people to compare ourselves to, whether it be in areas of smarts, etc.

      Then again my family values brains!

      This has given me thoughts on how to raise my future daughters. Thank you.

    • Zzz

      Yeah, I saw this After School Special in 1989 too.

    • your cousin

      This is such a bummer. I want to send it to a friend who has a conventionally hot blonde little sister. They are besties, but the damage of growing up with her is apparent to anyone who has seen my friend – she weighs about 250 lbs. She’s brilliant, but would be hot TOO if she would just have a little faith in herself.

      • Anonymous

        Maybe your brilliant friend would have more faith in herself if her “friends” didn’t use her size as shorthand for calling her “damaged.”

        • your cousin

          Or we can encourage her to get down to a “healthy weight,” which will probably make her feel “better” about herself. “Whichever.”

        • Guest

          other people’s bodies ain’t your business bro

        • becky

          Not likely. More likely, it will make her feel more ashamed and “damaged” than she probably already does. Don’t mention her weight, be a decent friend and let her live her life. That’s the only kind thing you can do.

        • Anonymous

          Wow, that doesn’t make you sound judgmental or condescending at all. I’ll bet she doesn’t even know how totally gross, er, unhealthy, you think she is. You’re a swell friend.

        • Anonymous

          You know what, I’m sorry. This hit on one of my pet peeves, and I am being snarky and dismissive, when you are just following conventional wisdom. Here’s the thing though: fat people? Know they’re fat. And we really don’t police anyone’s so-called health like we do with the fat folks. Also, there are people for whom fat and healthy are not mutually exclusive, and weight loss dieting has a failure rate of about 95%. The real pisser is that most people gain weight as a result of messing with their metabolism through dieting. Add to that the fact that thin does not automatically equal healthy, and I think we would all do well to mind our own business and let people be in charge of their own health, without tut-tutting or passing judgment on the choices of grown-ass people. I’ll get off my soapbox now.

    • Scott 33

      Deep. Great article.

    • Anonymous

      ugh. sisters will always be sisters. whatever. 

    • http://somuchtocome.blogspot.com Aja

      One day you’ll laugh at this even though it seems so grating and ever present now.  I have a similar situation to your own.  I had a coworker wax poetic about my sister’s lovely looks for five minutes before turning to me and declaring that I was the one with the heart and personality.  I stared him down point blank and said “you just called me the ‘ugly’ sister”.  I don’t know why but I still laugh at this.  It’s just life I suppose.  And truthfully, it’s all so relative.  Something about beauty and the beholder . . .

    • http://staugustinian.wordpress.com/ STaugustine

      Worry not:  Time will avenge this injustice to you.  You won’t even have to wait 20 years…

      • Anonymous

        Ha!

    • http://staugustinian.wordpress.com/ STaugustine

      Here’s the guy version: I was the smart and handsome one…  my buddy was the RICH one.

    • http://fastfoodies.org Briana

      i really, truly enjoyed the humanity and poignancy of the last line. :)

    • http://twitter.com/Social_Sam Sam Bishop-Strand

      This sums up my relationship with my sister pretty well! I paid my way through college (my parents wouldn’t help me at all) while she went to modeling school (paid for by our parents because it was a “career opportunity” – I couldn’t make that up if I tried.)  During these years I had a crazy mad crush on a coworker and after he spent one afternoon with my sister and he told me “You could be pretty like her too, Sam, if you really tried.” Oh, and he made out with her. She was 16, he was 26. 

      At this point in my life I found my words to live by, which I shared with her a lot: “Beauty fades, dumb is forever.” She didn’t appreciate that.

      We’re much closer these days now that I’ve made peace with my plain Jane looks, awesome smarts and well paying job. She and her husband are trying to have a baby now, and I worry what will happen to her self-esteem when she gains 40 pounds of baby weight.

      As for me, I’ve already fattened up and gotten a few wrinkles. I’m still plain and smart. Okay with me!

    • Guest

      I always wanted to parent my kids with that jack donaghy emphasis on heavy handed insults and little to no flesh-on-flesh contact.

    • Editor Of That Blog

      needed to be written, for sisters everywhere. great piece!

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