I have a twin brother. Most people, upon finding this out, ask if we’re identical. In the scientific sense of the word, my brother, Jacob, and I are fraternal twins, and I always have to suppress a laugh when I’m asked this question because it’s biologically impossible that we’re identical. However, except for our gender difference, Jacob and I share many social identifiers that influence how we experience the world. We’re both white and Jewish. We’re only one minute apart in age. We have the same socioeconomic status and educational background. We’ve lived in the same neighborhoods and have travelled to the same places. From that description, we do seem to be practically identical. In fact, I wasn’t aware of gender being a differentiating factor when we were younger. According to family lore, when both of us were too short to see ourselves in the mirror, Jacob and I thought that we were each other. If someone showed me a photograph of the two of us and asked me to point to Isabel, I apparently pointed to Jacob; after all, his face was the one I looked at all the time.
I’ve only recently begun to understand that the gender-neutral environment in our home was not an accident, and to appreciate how hard my parents worked to maintain that gender neutrality. Although we thankfully didn’t have to wear matching twin outfits, Jacob and I were exposed to the same toys, books, and TV shows. Instead of playing with Barbies, I did jigsaw puzzles and built train sets and marble runs with Jacob. He also wasn’t exposed to toys typically marketed to boys and didn’t shoot Nerf guns or collect Pokémon cards. On the limited occasions that we watched TV, the two of us took turns choosing a show.
My parents’ careful choices about the media to which I was exposed made me a cultural alien in preschool and elementary school. They were intentional in not letting me consume anything that reinforced gender stereotypes, especially media with pretty but uninteresting female characters. When the other girls in my class talked about their favorite Disney princesses, I couldn’t name a single one. When they sang Hannah Montana songs, I didn’t know the words. At the time, this unawareness bothered and embarrassed me. I wanted the Cinderella backpack, the iCarly t-shirt, and, most of all, to understand these references that my peers shared with one another. But no matter how much I begged, my parents never bought me the branded items that I wanted, and over time, I stopped wanting them. Jacob had a similar experience of lacking the cultural reference points over which his friends bonded, but he noticed it more in conversations about Sponge Bob and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or when his friends played first-person shooter video games.
To this day, I’m still not nearly as caught up on popular culture references as the majority of my peers, but I’m okay with it. As much as my experience isolated me from my peers when I was younger, growing up in a relatively gender-neutral home with a male twin prevented me from internalizing the stereotype-enforcing messages that are marketed to young girls. Like anyone, I have moments of insecurity and self-doubt, but for the most part, I’m confident in myself. I’m comfortable with the sound of my own voice and speak frequently at the family dinner table, in my classes, and at Model UN conferences. Although I can think of countless examples where I’ve failed to assert myself, or where I let my voice get drowned out by louder male ones, I also proudly remember the times when I’ve stood up for myself and others, articulated an opinion, and vocally disagreed with people.
So no, Jacob and I are definitely not identical. I’ve become keenly aware of the impact of our different genders on our treatment and experiences outside our home the older I’ve gotten. I struggled in middle school to find clothes that fit our incredibly subjective dress code, while Jacob didn’t have to think twice. I’m one of two girls in my fifteen-person physics class this year, while Jacob is always in the gender majority in his math and science classes. I stay alert (and perhaps a little paranoid) on public transportation, while Jacob leans back in his seat and listens to music. I don’t go places by myself at night, not even a run at dusk, while Jacob enjoys solo walks around our neighborhood after dark.
Jacob’s and my relatively gender-neutral home environment couldn’t shield us from the influences of the world around us, but having a male twin has made me acutely aware of just how much my daily routines are impacted by my gender. I sometimes wish I didn’t notice all of the subtle differences in our treatment and experiences because of the frustration and anger they cause. However, this awareness has made me more passionate in my feminism, and more confident in the need to make my voice heard.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.
How to cite this page
Kirsch, Isabel. "Almost Identical." 31 October 2016. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on June 1, 2020) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/almost-identical>.