From self-consciousness to eating disorders, twins speak out about how unsolicited comments about physical appearance is toxic when it comes to their mental health
At the age of eleven years old, US-based identical twins and co-founders of Two Scoops of Style, Sarah and Leah Brzyski, were peer-pressured into sitting on either end of a “teeter-totter” (or a “seesaw”). Their friends wanted to see who would fall to the ground first – a form of harmless playground entertainment.
“I felt so humiliated that I was the one that went to the bottom of the teeter-totter first,” the now 29-year old Sarah remembers. “Being the heavier twin felt so embarrassing. I wanted to crawl in a hole at that moment”.
If you clicked on this article, you’re most likely curious to learn about how comments, or “harmless comparisons” you made in the past towards twins may’ve been toxic. After all, you may’ve just been stating the ‘obvious’ to tell them apart – differences in face shape, a mole or birthmark, weight or fashion sense. Perhaps you’re keen to avoid offending twins in the future.
Either way, gift yourself some grace in the fact that it is 100% natural to be overtly fascinated by identical twins. I am, and I am one. Making up just 3% of the population, the interconnectedness of twins is intriguing and physical similarities a spectacle to the human eye. Let’s dive into what makes drawing comparisons between twins’ incredibly toxic at times.
The dark side of social comparison
Aussie-based Psychology Graduate, Jemma Sbeg, contextualises social comparison as ‘normal’ from an evolutionary perspective. The concept is defined by psychologists as a way people value their own personal and social worth, by assessing how they compare to others.
In an episode of her podcast, Psychology of your 20s, she describes the way humans are socially driven to remain part of an in-group – those with a shared interest or identity. “Our brain compares ourselves to people who are more similar to us because that information is more valuable”, she explains. By comparing ourselves to others who reflect similar parts of ourselves, we’re better able to fit in with social norms.
This is a cognitive loop we can all relate to, especially with social media on our backs. For the everyday person, social comparison might result in taking an extra trip to the gym for the summer ‘beach bod’ or buying a new outfit to fit in with the latest fashion trend. The comparison most likely takes place solely in your head and is rarely reinforced by others.
However, social comparison between twins plays out slightly differently – largely because identical twins are so similar in appearance, intellect and environment. The extreme similarities between twins can make even the slightest differences more obvious. This can make the nature of social comparison more intrusive than for the everyday person.
Not to invalidate anybody’s experiences with comparison, but where one may compare the size of their nose to an influencer across the globe on Instagram, a twin might scrutinise their appearance against a person with identical biological make-up who is sitting right next to them. They may feel inadequate, unaccomplished or imperfect compared to their identical sibling.
If twins haven’t established a strong sense of identity from a young age, they’re going to naturally struggle developing a healthy relationship with themselves and their twin anyway. This challenging task is made more difficult if twins are dressed the same, placed in the same class and share friends, hobbies and bedrooms growing up.
As a result, insensitive questions or intrusive comments from onlookers can prematurely damage the development of a twin’s sense of identity and toxify the twin attachment.
The unhelpful judgements of others can serve to irrationally validate the pressures a twin may already be putting on themselves. As a result, twins may either strive to look the same, or completely different to establish their own sense of identity.
Dr. Barbara Klein, author of New Understandings of Twin Relationships, uses the metaphor of a “Hall of Mirrors” to describe a twin’s life journey through a non-twin world: A hallway of warped attitudes, prejudices and expectations that distorts a twin’s sense of self.
Shari Rogers is a therapist and twin specialist who has been working with twins for the past decade and a half. External social comparison can negatively reinforce the “natural mirror” twins have no option but to confront growing up, Rogers explains. “There’s a lack of awareness around the likelihood of twins misinterpreting appearance-based comments.”
To me, it seems nonsensical to needlessly comment on anyone’s appearance, let alone if they face the complexities of involuntarily looking at themself in the mirror on a momentary basis anyway.
Behind the veil of toxic twin comparisons
The teeter-totter incident, almost two decades ago, was the first time Sarah recalls internalising the pressure to look and be the same as her sister, Leah. Transitioning into her teenage years, she assumed that having differences – of any kind – was “wrong”.
A few years later, in high school, Leah caught a flu and lost ten pounds in weight. Instinctively, Sarah felt a surge of pressure to lose ten pounds too. It was an anxious niggle she didn’t act on, as at the time she didn’t know how to lose 10 pounds. However, it did make her highly self-conscious of her body; which triggered back to the teeter-totter incident years before. “Now everybody is going to think she’s the skinny one and I’m the fat one”, she recalls thinking to herself.
UK-based twins, Marika and Chantelle Armstrong (24) dealt with a wrath of toxic comparison growing up. Most pressingly, they wanted to be recognised as individuals by their peers and teachers. By changing the shape of their glasses, the colour of their hair and style of school shoes, they assumed they’d start to be referred to by their name and not as one of “the twins”. However, nothing seemed to work. It got to the point where they accepted that the merge of identity is a byproduct of being a twin they’ll have to learn to grin and bear until they go their separate ways.
However, the contradiction of their “identicalness” was confusing at times. Despite looking the same, the observed physical differences between the girls were openly scrutinised at times.
Chantelle remembers boys at school referring to Marika as the “pretty” and “smaller” twin which, at the time, made her feel inadequate and small. “I often doubted if I was good enough”, Chantelle says. “There were times where I questioned my worth as a person.”
Out-of-school hours were no safe haven, either. “I used to work in a care-home,” Marika sighed in a call. “One of the women in the kitchen once saw Chantelle walk past the window to come and visit me. She turned around to me and said ‘Oh, she’s definitely the fatter twin isn’t she?’”
The weight-related comparisons resulted in periods where both sisters stopped eating altogether, shrinking their bodies to avoid unwanted attention. For Marika, the favourable ‘compliments’ were just as uncomfortable for her as they were for her sister.
As an identical twin myself, I’ve personally experienced the qualms of being born with a ready-made best friend. Throughout our childhood, friends, family and teachers would overtly point out the tiniest differences between my sister and I – as if we were animals to be gazed upon in a petting zoo.
These included my sister having a thinner face, being half an inch taller and speaking in a slightly deeper voice. Our grades were the same at school, and we had the same interests and hobbies, therefore there wasn’t much else to distinguish us by.
Over the years, my sister and I have learnt to brush off the heightened attention that’s come with having an identical DNA, as well as embrace the everyday gimmicks – like being able to hack into each other’s smartphones through face ID or post synchronised yoga routines on Instagram for fun.
As we walk down the street, we respond to the forthright stares and awestricken “omg, twins!”, with a light chuckle and we move on with our day. It’s an art that we’ve skilfully mastered, because we’ve had to. Sadly, much as the Armstrong and Brzyski twins experienced, this wasn’t always the case.
Teenage comparison and competitiveness
At the age of 13, my sister was diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa – an eating disorder characterised by implementing extreme control over one’s weight, food choices and physical activity. In her case, it also included the more niche streak of striving to be the ‘thinner twin’. The echo of twin comparisons over the years planted toxic seeds in her brain that the modest difference in weight that made her ‘special’.
Combined with growing up in a diet-culture endorsed digital decade, being thinner than me was partly my sister’s way of rejecting the “twin comments” and establishing her own sense of identity.
The extremeness of this goal resulted in her being planted on a conveyor belt of psychiatric admissions at specialist eating disorder units around the country; the majority of which resulted in a cycle of weight gain, discharge and relapse.
Whilst working in an Emergency Department in the US, Rogers noticed that many young girls coming into the programme had an identical twin. This marked the start of a fascinating career, diving deep into the depths of twin psychology and food issues.
Sixteen years later, she highlights the two unique challenges that contribute to an identical twin developing an eating disorder: intense comparison and competitiveness; supporting the well-established findings that being a twin heightens the risks of developing Anorexia by 33%.
Perhaps being constantly compared on your physical appearance, seemingly from the moment you’re born, has an impact on this concerning statistic. Perhaps not. Either way, I cringe looking back as Katy and I passively complied with being dressed in matching outfits by our parents and referred to by teachers as “the twins” as opposed to our real names.
We sucked up comments from friends like “I can tell you apart because your face is rounder and yours is thinner” and insensitive observations from relatives who played spot-the-difference every time they visited. It didn’t make the urge not to compare and compete with one another any easier, that’s for sure.
As we got older, the comments got more intrusive. I remember one moment at a party when a stranger said to my sister, close enough to hear, “I’m more attracted to you because you’re smaller than your sister”.
Comparisons like this struck me to the bone and made me struggle with my self-esteem over the years. More so, it reinforced my sister’s crippling disease; speculatively rooted in a deep desire to be thinner than her twin sister.
“It can feel like your appearance almost belongs to other people who feel entitled to make comments”, Leah Brzyski points out; to which Dr. Klein points out how “intrusive” and “inappropriate” unsolicited comments and comparisons are. “It’s like walking up to someone in the street and commenting on their sexual orientation,” she says. “You wouldn’t”.
Whilst my sister was trying to recover from her eating disorder, I had to work extra hard to rewire the negative thoughts and feelings I had about my own body; an issue I don’t think I would’ve had if my appearance wasn’t unwelcomingly subject to other’s distasteful opinions.
This was an emotionally taxing process that took years to work through, as my progress was frequently reset by disparaging comments from others.
Toxic twin comparison: A step in the right direction
Fortunately, I’ve gained the confidence to not only brush comments off but challenge them in the moment they’re made. Today, I would’ve embraced the opportunity to make the ‘party boy’ look foolish. When I have the time, I cease the opportunity to increase understanding and awareness about the impact unsolicited comments can have on a twin’s mental health and wellbeing.
I don’t blame people for making comments at all, as I said, it’s natural. Even so, I do want to provide insight as to how toxic comparing twins can be, so out lookers can make more conscious decisions – to comment, compare or trivialise – twin relationships in the future.
With 35 years of research under her belt, Klein offers some simple advice to those who feel compelled to make an unthoughtful remark or comparison about a twin’s appearance – however well-intentioned.
“Try to understand that it’s different being a twin, and stop making comments”, she says. Like race, or status or wealth, being a twin is part of someone’s identity that they can’t pick and choose, therefore it’s not something people should feel entitled to comment on.
Fortunately, the complexities of being a twin in a non-twin world, is being talked about more. In their podcast “A Thorough Examination”, TV doctors, Chris and Xand Van Tulleken, speak openly about their rocky relationship as twins, particularly in response to weight-related comparisons.
Their work as twin doctors have radicalised the science of food and nutrition – contributing to the launch of Chris’s recent book, Ultra-Processed People.
The Tulleken twins demonstrate how it is possible to not only accept, but take advantage, of being a twin – as we should. In a similar way, The Brzyski twins have profited similarly in the fashion industry. In lockdown, they carved out a nichè for themselves on Instagram after noticing how much traction their photos together gained. On their Instagram page, Two Scoops of Style, they decided to mimic the TikTok trend of splitting your screen and duplicating yourself in a video.
With complementary interests, the sisters started to post regular videos, in matching outfits, offering fashion tips and lifestyle content. They’ve come to appreciate how lucky they are to be born with a ready-made best friend, despite their challenges growing up. Much like my sister and I, they celebrate having a lifelong partner who is not a spouse. “I think now, if someone were to put me on a teeter-totter, I feel like I definitely wouldn’t handle it the same way”, Sarah chuckles.
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Identical twins, Leah and Sarah Brzyski, post matching outfits on social media page – Two Scoops of Style
As did the Brzyski twins, Marika and Chantelle Armstrong naturally formed their own identities in adulthood. “Building our separate lives, with our partners and kids, has made us a lot stronger as individuals, and together”, Marika says. Their priorities in life shifted, and they gained a more objective perspective on the anxieties they experienced in their younger years.
“Looking back, I think I’d tell myself that I’m better than all of those comments”, Chantelle smiles. “They mean nothing, and don’t define me anymore”.
All this to say, the challenges that come with being a twin shouldn’t be taken lightly or dismissed as ‘a phase’ that twins will grow out of in adulthood. Comparing twins – out of curiosity, habit or fascination – is something we’ve all casually engaged in, whether we like to admit it or not.
So, if there’s one thing you take away, it’s this: when in doubt, don’t compare. You never know what a pair of twins are going through, or what psychological challenge an impulsive comment might trigger. It’s simply not worth the risk.
Featured image by cottonbro studio via Pexels CC.