"Who's the evil twin?" I stare into the harsh, unfamiliar eyes. They are just a little too close to mine as they peer in, unblinking, to examine my face. A moment later, they dart over to study my twin sister as we sit fearfully upright in our double stroller. The stranger scans us as if we are the subjects of a science experiment.
Several years later, my fifth-grade self swallows the familiar ache in my throat, signaling that I may burst into tears at any moment. I plaster a fake smile across my face to ensure my friend that everything is fine as she informs me that "Mia is the prettier twin."
But it's not.
People have stuck labels to differentiate me from my twin sister, Mia, for as long as I can remember. Strangers stop us in the street to question "Who is smarter?" or "Who is more athletic?" Even family members will point out physical features such as size, shape, and flaws to set us apart from one another without realizing they would never dare to mention if we were not twins. As any twin could tell you, people do not feel the need to obey any social norms when commenting on us. The presence of someone who looks exactly like you invites public scrutiny into private matters. In these moments, I become an object to analyze. I am put in a box, any box, as long as it is not the same as Mia's. In everything I do, I am either the best or the worst - pretty or ugly, smart or stupid, fast or slow; I never get to feel what it is like to be in the middle of the spectrum. While these constant comparisons drive me to be my best, they also allow me to be more compassionate when it comes to those who are not. When Mia and I departed for different colleges last fall, her lack of presence in my life forced me to become independent.
Mia's constant presence in my life has forced me to push myself to perform to the best of my abilities. Despite the obvious shared qualities, Mia and I even participate in the same favorite activities, such as figure skating and track, in which we are made out to be each other's biggest competition. In skating practice, my coach would often compare our abilities, which motivated me to work harder. If Mia's jumps were supposedly higher, I would spend an extra hour that week attempting to surpass her height. Even in team sports like track, we would often be pitted against each other in races, but for a good reason. Unsurprisingly, my times were faster when I was running against Mia. When report cards came out and Mia's grades were slightly better, I forced myself to spend more time focusing on my schoolwork. Most students feel pressure to achieve in school, so we had the added pressure of outdoing each other in grades. The spirit of competition in our relationship has motivated me to consistently put forth my best effort.
While competing in all the same activities pushes me to do my best, it may seem toxic to feel constantly compared. However, my knowledge of this feeling is used in a beneficial way, as it allows me to be more empathetic. The weight of a gold medal on my chest feels uncomfortable when I am aware that Mia, though she may be wearing silver standing next to me, feels as though she just got dead last. While I allow myself to celebrate things like getting first in a race that Mia was also a part of, I still am there to comfort her on the bus ride home. We always seek to be the better, the winner, the "good" twin, but achieving the better status was no better than being found the twin who was wanting. Since the winner is always switching in our relationship, we often found ourselves saying the phrase "next time" to each other. While losing to the other can hurt, there's always the possibility of winning the next. Our society forces people to constantly compare themselves to others; I have learned to not let these comparisons determine my self-worth. If a friend of mine is upset about a lost race or a bad grade, I am able to offer support, or the encouraging "next time" to them. The hardest part about being a twin is the constant comparison, but the best part is that as a comparison implies, there is someone else out there who knows exactly what you are going through.
While Mia's presence in my life impacts me greatly, her lack thereof has affected my independence quite notably. Up until August of last year, Mia and I had not spent more than twenty-four hours apart. Needless to say, the first few weeks of college were very difficult for me. Not only was I not familiar with being apart from her, but I also was not used to doing things by myself. Attending the same school as well as participating in the same activities has prevented me from ever having to enter a new situation alone. I was not used to introducing myself without Mia there. Even doing simple tasks most people are capable of doing on their own, like going to pick up food or checking out at a store felt foreign to me. At first, I felt as though a part of me was missing. I thought the friends I was making did not know the real me because they did not know Mia. When I first met people, I was surprised they were not hesitant to call me by my name, as most people that I recently met could not tell me apart from Mia. Even to our friends at home, we are referred to as the "Riley's", not by our own names. Not having Mia by my side forced me out of my shell to do things independently, but it also allowed me to confront who I am without her. While my peers at home assumed Mia and I were exactly the same and grouped us together, people I've met at college only know me through what I say or do, not through the actions of my sister.
It is impossible to demonstrate who I am without talking about Mia. Rather than trying to figure out my identity as someone other than Mia, I learned that I am who I am in no small part to who she is. How lucky I am to have my greatest adversary also be my biggest supporter, and I hope that she feels the same way. Her presence in my life compels me to strive to be my best, but also has taught me how to be empathetic when I am not. Her lack thereof forces me to be truly independent. Neither of us has to be the good or evil twin, the smart or unsmart twin, the pretty or the ugly twin. We are both capable of being the best or the worst, just like anyone else. Instead, I have a sister, a friend, a competitor who will constantly bring out the best in me.