One of my favourite cultural and linguistic shifts, over the past couple of years, is the growing use of the term ‘sisterhood’. I know that it dates back to much earlier (hello 14thcentury, according to the thirty-second Google search I just committed to) but the way it’s used that I’m talking about is familiar to anyone with an Instagram account in 2020.
‘My sister’, ‘soul sister’ – these terms litter social media, but it’s easy from the outside to consider that they’re misused. Sisterhood, in our contemporary definition, seems to me to refer to the community and network of female friends that many people have. Sisterhood can also mean that mutual empowerment, a bedrock of female friendships, which has in my life had an enormous impact, as I have been boosted selflessly and lovingly by female friends. As someone with a decent number of truly incredible female friends, I love this term of ‘sisterhood’. And it’s true that, as someone with a sister (three sisters, to be precise), I sometimes feel it’s not entirely accurate.
As one of four girls (or one of five, when my mum was at home) my life growing up was a quarter of the whole: we were (and are) ‘the girls’ as a collective, and that probably caused each of us a measure of adolescent angst. It’s hard to try to be an individual when you’re four different versions of the same thing, and though I can’t speak for my siblings, I think we all felt in some way at some stage that we had to do or be something a little bit different than the rest.
Sisterhood, in the way we use it to refer to friendships, doesn’t bear a great deal of resemblance, at first glance, to the siblinghood of my childhood and adolescence. It’s hard to imagine, for instance, an adolescence without the impending doom of angry footsteps towards my bedroom door, at my sister’s discovery of yet another missing item of clothing, and equally hard to superimpose that on my friendships. (Even when I’ve lived with female friends, the nuance of clothes-sharing has typically meant that beating a door down for your favourite top isn’t strictly necessary.)
It’s also hard to imagine a relationship with my close female friends which is quite so marked by casual violence; I’m not condoning it, but an awful lot of growing up with sisters (and, I hear from friends of mine with brothers, siblings in general) seems to be the casual way we would throw quick slaps and pinches at each other out of frustration, with each of you calculating the easiest and quickest possible way for you get in a hit and scarper without consequence. (I don’t condone violence in any form, of course, but if this revelation comes as a surprise, you probably don’t have either siblings or children – and have a very peaceful life, no doubt). Either way, it’s just hard to imagine my best friend pulling my hair because I ate her Kinder Bueno.
There’s a great deal about real sisterhood which bears no resemblance to friendships I’ve ever had. Of course, growing up has something to do with it – I really rarely nick people’s Kinder Buenos or favourite shirts any more, and I don’t usually find my Beanie Baby collection on the pavement outside my bedroom window. (Yes, I had one. Leave it). The type of sisterhood that I think we talk about now, however, I am starting to understand. The older I have become, the more sisters I have found in my friends – and the better friends I have become with my sisters.
I have found sisters in my friends who text me ‘I love you!’ during a rainy Tuesday, and sisters in the friends who take six-hour coaches from different cities to come and see me. I’ve found sisters in friends who send me cards in the real actual post, instead of Instagram comments, and sisters in the friends who alwaysleave Instagram comments. (My real sisters leave Instagram comments, and I don’t think we ever feel the lack of a handwritten missive.) I found more sisters who flew to see me when I moved to the Middle East, and even more who stayed in my life when I flew back. I have sisters I didn’t meet until a few years ago, who now I speak to every day. When I moved in with my closest female friend in this city a year ago, I even found a sisterhood that was deeply familiar, rummaging through each other’s wardrobes and having endless, beautiful ABBA singalongs.
But I am also lucky enough to have found best friends in my sisters. I’ve found friends in the sisters I ring to complain about being hungover, whose patience with my whinging is more than I have for myself. I’ve found friends in the sisters I talk to about my boyfriend, whose advice I look for when I know it to be more rational and fair than my instincts. I’ve found friends in the sisters I’ve talked to about difficulties at work, struggles with money, about sex, houseplants and how to tell when a potato is just too mouldy to eat. My sisters have been my friends when I’ve been at my lowest, and I hope that the same is true for them. We’ve never been far apart, but as adults, we have grown together, a bit like vines; each of us takes it in turn, these days, to provide the stability and the stake in the earth. As one of the eldest (second of four) I’ve always tried to be a solid bet. What I didn’t expect is how much I have come to rely on each of them, and their solid, unwavering support.
The best (and, at times, the worst) thing about sisters is that they never really go away. That even in the moments you pull away, out of frustration or anger, banging the phone down or slamming the door – is that in a short while, they’ll be there again. In childhood, and angsty adolescence, this persistence is probably the cause of another slammed door. In adulthood, it’s a reprieve: whatever stupid thing you’ve said, they’ll be there again: holding a gin and tonic, or with a dog GIF, and it’s like it never happened.
The best thing about my close female friends is that they are my sisters. They know me inside out; they laugh when I laugh, they rage when I rage, they cry when I cry. The best thing about my sisters is that they are my friends. The net result, at this stage of my life, is that I’ve found more sisters than I know what to do with- and I wouldn’t give you a single one of them.