The Sorority Effect: Surgery, Sisterhood and Rich, Famous Family

Written by Whitney Mallett
Art by Claudia Maté
Printed in Issue 20

I’ve never had a sister, but sometimes I imagine a Bizarro World version of me, the same DNA stretched long like an image resized without constraining proportions. Maybe she’s two inches taller, with the same size feet, and people argue over who’s hotter.

More of my friends are having work done.

I’m one year older than Kourtney Kardashian was when Kim’s sex tape leaked.

When I’m with this one friend of mine, people are always asking if we’re sisters.

Sisters is clout. Sisters is a fetish. Sisters on reality TV crying without their faces moving is goals. Pretty sisters are uncanny reproductions of one another, the same model in different colorways, a wonky funhouse mirror reflection. The Kardashian-Jenners, the Hadids, the Clermont twins, sisters unafraid of work. Being beautiful is within anyone$ reach—rhinoplasty, fillers, implants, fat transfer—but being sisters is a work of God.

In this era, when the beauty ideal is widely accessible through cosmetic procedures, it makes sense that what escapes surgery and injections would gain cachet. Family resemblance is obvious but hard to pin down. Sibling-ness has nuance. The women who get plastic surgery to look like Kim will never look like her the way Kourtney does. With a bigger butt and fuller lips, they’re pursuing perfection while it’s actually the repetition of idiosyncrasies that suggests true relationality, and even when it comes to our most plastic icons, we cherish realness. We have forums and articles refuting claims that Kylie and Bella have never had work done, but no one has ever accused any of them of faking their sisterness. It’s undeniable.

Another thing you can’t deny is the exponential marketing potential of reproducibility. By basing his persona on a mask, MF Doom made it possible to hire a double to impersonate him and expand his influence. The more Kylie takes on Kim’s mask, big and little sis can do the same.

The more they accentuate their reproducibility—the same oversized sunglasses and body-con silhouettes, déja vu Balmain dresses and newspaper print Dior—the more real estate they can take up in your brain. This is a whole family building a multi-billion-dollar empire hocking lip kits and eyeshadow palettes by twinning on Instagram. Sisters co-branding in the age of dead musicians’ touring as holograms.

There are so many sisters! Cardi and Hennessy, Jade and Baddie Gi, Beyoncé and Solange, Chloe and Halle, Dakota and Elle, Kate and Pippa, that band Haim. The early aughts were full of them too: Paris and Nicky, Mary-Kate and Ashley, Venus and Serena, Jessica and Ashlee, Hilary and Haylie (Duff), Jenna and Barbara (Bush). In the 90s, there was Tia and Tamera and the Braxtons. On the other side of the pond, there’s the whimsically named Geldof clan, Pixie, Fifi Trixibelle, and Peaches (RIP), as well as half-sister Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily Hutchence. Down under there’s Kylie Minogue and the younger, trashier Dannii— speaking of less famous sisters who haven’t quite got out from under a sibling’s shadow, there’s Ali Lohan or Noah Cyrus. When it comes to famous industry families, there are the Judds (a mom and two sisters) and there are the Arquettes (Patricia, Rosanna, Alexis plus two brothers). And speaking of work, Joan and Jackie Collins are plastic pioneers along with Liza Minelli and Lorna Luft.

Two sisters is, at its most fundamental level, the sorority effect, a cognitive bias that makes individuals appear more attractive when they are in a group. Sisters are always hotter than the hot girl sum of their parts. It’s the same logic that explains why a group of imperfect singers sound lovely together as a chorus of voices. It’s an averaging-out of asymmetries and disproportionalities but with a little bit of alchemical magic, because the group average tends to be more attractive than the individual faces on average.

When it comes to sisters, they’re not just a group of girls with complementary high-lights and matching Tory Burch shoes. There’s an uncanny attraction to genetic repetition and variation. I love to look at sisters and see a face doubled but changed, a longer chin, a wider jaw, eyes a little closer together or further apart. You see the same chromosomal inheritances, but through some act of fate or random luck, one sister’s features line up in a way that reads gorgeous, while for another one it ends up wonky or severe or just plain. Sisters is a study in the cryptic nuances of beauty. You can analyze the elements—almond eyes, a Roman nose, bow lips—but sometimes there’s something beyond a rational explanation for why it all looks better on one sibling than another. Other times it’s not about who’s prettier and why, it’s just a buffet of different iterations, pick your poison. Blonde or brunette. Equine beauty or girl-next-door. Carla Bruni-type or round-faced doll. If you could wake up one morning as an American princess, who do you dream about being? Part of the aspirational fantasy that is the Karjenners or the Hadids, it’s not just being part of a beautiful family, it’s being part of a family that makes beauty attainable—fillers, facials, personal trainers.

Sisters have always had an eerily mystifying appeal, but sisters with plastic surgery on Instagram is uncanny to the power of three, the strange but familiar repetition of faces that hover in the netherworld between fake and real, lips plumpified and noses shaved down more for the purposes of these pixelated aspirations than real-life perception, Lil Miquelas with flesh-and-blood bodies.

When one of the Clermont twins, Shannade, was serving time, Shannon, in the meantime, posted solo on their joint Instagram account, bathroom selfie, bare-faced in lingerie, stunting on a private jet, product placement for a portable hookah in the backseat of a car. In one pic, she poses in a tie-dye onesie and Camper Kobarahs in front of a mirror, her reflection a stand-in twin. Lips puckered, booty popped, sad eyes behind her blue-tinted glasses, she’s a sister doubled, but alone.

To read this story in print, order a copy of issue 20, ships internationally.