There's no more vicious rivalry than between sisters – and I should know, I've got FIVE
00:26 GMT, 19 May 2012
Aged just four, I may have been too young for school but I knew exactly how to hurt my big sister, Ann. She loved to sing — but had a truly terrible voice.
As I sat playing quietly one afternoon, I overheard my Mum and Gran discussing this sad truth.
As soon as six-year-old Ann got home, I rushed up to tell her what they’d said. She promptly burst into tears.
The Robinson girls: Main picture, clockwise from bottom left, Winifred, Gina, Ann, Stella, Claire and Mary. According to experts, the narrower the age gap the more intense the jealousy
Why did I do it when we were constant playmates and I loved her to bits
Well, in our family, Ann was the pretty one.
Little as I was, part of me hated her for having big blue eyes and blonde curls, compared to my mousey locks, and I resented the attention she drew from our extended family and my parents’ friends.
The idea that women are sometimes hated by other women for being beautiful — or cherished for being plain — provoked a storm of internet outrage and denial when Samantha Brick wrote about the subject in the Mail last month.
Surely, it can’t possibly be true that women are constantly comparing themselves against each other over their looks
Of course it is. And nowhere is this rivalry more intense than among sisters. It is where we learn our craft. As one of six sisters, I know what I’m talking about.
Most women probably have an idealised image of life in a huge female family. But for us it was hardly Louisa M. Alcott’s Little Women, with its mutual support and cosy companionship.
No, it was rather more like Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, where flocks of what should be delicate, harmless creatures suddenly descend and try to peck you to death.
The first four of us are very close in age, all born within five years. Sister number five came five years later, and sister six a decade after that.
According to experts, the narrower the age gap the more intense the jealousy. Even though our parents tried to be scrupulously fair, we fought at times like ferrets in a sack.
We tend to look back and idealise childhood, but sibling rivalry is unavoidable because it is the deep-seated, primeval fear that other children will steal all the nurturing and attention, leaving you destitute.
Winifred, seated centre, with Stella, Ann and Mary. Sisters usually share bedrooms, and often beds. We certainly did in our early years. There literally was no escaping each other
If you doubt me, look at the work of Professor Judy Dunn, a psychologist at Kings College, London, who has observed scores of children in their sibling groups.
‘The message is that children are far more socially sophisticated than we ever imagined,’ she says.
‘That sweet little 15-month-old or shy 17-month-old is watching like a hawk what goes on between her mother and older sibling.’
Professor Dunn has found that from the age of 18 months, children know how to comfort and hurt each other, and how to exacerbate each other’s pain.
And of the two sexes, sisters are the more sophisticated fighters, says another academic, Terri Apter, a psychologist at Cambridge University, who has studied the bonds that unite and divide sisters for a book, The Sister Knot.
Brothers, she observes, are more prone to fist fights, but sisters wound each other psychologically, and much more deeply. This is because girls explore feelings and develop the vocabulary to express them from a much younger age.
‘The truth is that thanks to our sisters, we learn as tiny children exactly how to use our empathetic skills to torture each other,’ says Terri.
‘Your sister knows how to push all your buttons, simple as that.’
We sure did in our household, growing up in a three-bedroom, semi-detached council house in Liverpool with our mum Marie, a housewife, and dad John, a docker, at the helm.
Gina and Claire as children
From very early on, we’d compared and catalogued ourselves within the boundaries of our tight-knit group.
When pressed, we’d still offer the same descriptions today.
My eldest sister Mary, now 59, is the clever one who always had her head in a book.
Next is Stella, 58, the naughty one who drew attention to herself for all the wrong reasons, sometimes getting hurt in feats of daring.
Then came Ann, 56, admired for being pretty.
Now 54, I came next and I am the artistic one: I loved drawing, dancing and drama.
Gina, 48, is the kind one who wept at sad song lyrics and liked nothing better than to curl up next to Mum and stroke her arms.
Claire, 39, is the spoilt baby, fearless in throwing a tantrum, secure in the knowledge that she’d get her own way in the end.
Physical comparisons head a long list of things sisters will use in their unrelenting assaults on each other, and because they are so closely related, the blows hurt all the more.
‘It’s because you share a gene pool,’ explains Terri Apter.
‘You look alike and can’t help but notice how much the same features, arranged slightly differently, have come out so much better on someone else.’
Kylie and Dannii Minogue are the perfect example. They are both gorgeous, but Kylie, the older sister, retains an edge — the eyes slightly wider, the forehead just a little higher, the chin a tad more pronounced. Think how much more brightly Dannii would shine if Kylie wasn’t around.
We may not be in the Minogue league, but thanks to my sisters, I’ll never have to wonder how I’d look with thicker hair, bigger eyes, better teeth or longer legs: I just have to wait for a family gathering and take a look around.
If I buy something that doesn’t suit me, I can pass it on to Gina and see how I’d look in it if I was five years younger, or, in Claire’s case, if I’d been lucky enough to be born with an impossibly pert, high bum. It’s sickening, believe me.
Then there are the other, non-physical comparisons. Usually, when we envy someone else’s achievements, we can take comfort in reflecting on the differences between us — the disadvantages we have been dealt over the years.
A successful colleague at work, for example, may have attended the best private school, while you clawed your way up through the toughest of comprehensives. But with sisters, there’s scant solace to be had from the comparisons, as you all started out in the same boat.
When a sister succeeds where you have failed, it really has to be because she was born brainier or worked harder — or, worse, made better choices than you.
In our household, Mary was the clever one, passed the 11-plus and went to grammar school, then on to university.
Stella, the naughty one, failed the 11-plus and went to a secondary modern, leaving school at 15 to start work.
Although she was popular and funny and had masses of friends, Stella was jealous of Mary and used to spend hours bouncing a ball against the side of the house — right under the window of the bedroom where Mary was revising for exams.
Kylie (left) and Dannii (right) Minogue are both gorgeous, but Kylie, the older sister, retains an edge – the eyes slightly wider, the forehead just a little higher, the chin a tad more pronounced
Even when sisters are devoted to each other, it creates problems.
Gina, the kind one, adored me and I quickly learned to exploit this devotion, as it meant I could easily charm her into giving me her sweets or her favourite toys.
But with sisters, there is always a downside. Gina always wanted to be with me, trailing along behind me. Then, worse still, she started copying everything I did.
The most infuriating moment came when I was ten and took up Irish dancing, entering competitions and winning medals.
I had a special costume — a white dress lavishly embroidered with traditional Celtic designs. Gina, aged five, was too young to take part, but — to my horror — my mother made her a little outfit, just like mine.
I can recall to this day standing nervously in line with the other dancers as the fiddle struck up a jig and we rose to our toes.
I glanced down from the stage on a crowded auditorium where, lo and behold, my little sister was already doing her own version of the dance up and down the aisles.
Imagine my embarrassment and fury as everyone laughed at the pint-sized, whirling-dervish version of myself, when they should have been focusing on me. I still cringe at the memory.
Then, of course, there was the enforced physical presence of sisters. In our crowded house, I just couldn’t get away from clingy Gina. Or anyone else.
The suffocating proximity of childhood makes the vast majority of sister relationships a bit like marriages, according to Professor Deborah Tannen, an American who studied 100 sister relationships for her book, You Were Always Mom’s Favourite!
Sisters usually share bedrooms, and often beds. We certainly did in our early years. There literally was no escaping each other.
It turns out that there are five little Bricks, all girls, but other than that Samantha would reveal no more
Do we carry these resentments and rivalries with us into adulthood, and re-live them in friendships and in the workplace Of course we do.
I’ve certainly been jealous of beautiful colleagues in television, fast-tracked onto the screen when I had to bide my time, even though I had much more extensive reporting experience.
Was I perhaps a little frosty towards them as a result You bet I was.
Reflecting on all this, I started to wonder if Samantha Brick — author of the provocative article for this paper, lamenting the fact that other women hate her for no reason other than her lovely looks — might have a self-image shaped (some might say distorted) by life in a large family of girls.
I called her up while writing this article, and, bingo, it turns out that there are five little Bricks, all girls, but other than that Samantha would reveal no more.
I ventured a guess that she was the pretty one, but although she was really friendly and said she’d like to be helpful, sensibly she wouldn’t be drawn on the subject of her sisters, explaining that she was determined to respect their privacy.
If only I had the sense to do the same! But the wonderful thing about sisters is that, although you may hate and detest them at times, you love them in equal measure. And the sisterly loyalty such as Samantha showed can override all else.
As Professor Tannen puts it: ‘Sisters are a source of great solace. Whereas marriage may end in divorce, sisters are sisters for ever.’
Of course, what happens when sisters grow up depends on how skilfully parents diffused any rivalries, and on the individual personalities involved.
You can choose your friends, but not your family — and some people, even if related, will just never get on.
For most sisters, though, and certainly in our family, growing up and leaving home gave us the space to miss each other and to appreciate each other’s virtues.
We all followed different paths. Mary went on to be a school deputy head, Stella has now retired from her job as a clerk for the Littlewoods Pools company, Ann became a teaching assistant, Gina a clerical officer and I’m a presenter on Radio 4. Claire became an actress, with parts in soaps Brookside and Hollyoaks.
Between us, we have four marriages, two divorces and 12 children.
Like a great many sisters, we’ve since shared the triumphs and setbacks of adult life, supported one another through serious illnesses, career setbacks, relationship break-ups and divorce.
We all came together to nurse our mother when she succumbed to cancer seven years ago, and we all like to spend time with our Dad.
Even our irritating habits have somehow become comforting to each other, because they’re so familiar. These days when I try to boss my baby sister, she just rolls her eyes to heaven.
I’m certain that while sisterly rivalry may be painful, it’s healthy and certainly character-building.
Through our sisters, Terri Apter says, we learn who we are and how to stand up for ourselves in the wider world.
It certainly seems to have served Samantha Brick well. Just look at how she’s come through the ferocious backlash her article provoked.
She’s still out there, all guns blazing. She won’t say so, but I’m convinced she has her sisters to thank for that.
Let’s just hope that my five lovely sisters don’t gang up on me after reading this.