“You can kid the world, but not your sister", said Canadian author Charlotte Gray. It's true; even the tiniest lies you tell about yourself (and to yourself) are noticed by your sister, because she might be the only person who knows you better.
Over the last few months, photographer Lauren Maccabee has travelled up and down the country taking these beautiful portraits for Refinery29 of nine sets of sisters, including three sets of identical twins, and up to four sisters in one family. The observations they make about each other in the interviews below are the kinds of things it takes 20 years to learn. In-jokes that have developed over decades to the point where it only takes a look; animal-like protective instincts; and the profound admiration you get from watching someone go through every stage of life and come out brilliant. Prepare to feel very grateful for your sister unit.
Lydia (left), 29 and Millie (right), 25
Where are you from? From a little village in south Wales called Usk. What do you do for a living? Lydia: Creative Director at Refinery29 in New York. Millie: I am a final year PhD student, reading bioinformatics and cancer research at UCL. Describe your sister in five words… Lydia: Gentle. Genius. Fragile. Hilarious. EYEBROWS! Millie: Honest. Hardworking. Thoughtful. Funny. Perfectionist. What’s the most beautiful thing about your sister? Lydia: I feel like I’ve spent my life trying to care less about what people think about me, trying to have conviction behind my opinion without need for validation. I want to be a good person, so badly. And my sister, just is. She is the purest spirit on the planet. She doesn't see money or facade or labels or bitchy social nuances or measures of success or any of that. She just sees a person, as a person, with complete unbiased clarity. She doesn’t wear, perform or contrive who she is. Comfort from her is so sincere; a phone call from her can physically hold you up through the day. From her perfect Cupid's bow pout to the twisty way she sits around crowds because she feels awkward. The way that when someone asks her what she does for a living she’ll modestly say she’s studying (she’s about to complete her PhD in cancer, a career decision she made after watching our mother recover, and one that makes me well up with pride). And yet, when my sister clumsily walks into a room, everyone looks because she has no idea how profoundly beautiful she is. Millie: This is hard, since there are so many types of beauty she portrays daily. The one I resonate with most is her selflessness and care for the ones she loves. Even at times, when it can manifest as a blunt and direct concern, I know deep down it’s because she cares and wants the best for you, where she will do anything she can to make things right.
What makes her original? Lydia: She listens to A-Ha and dances predominantly with her knees, she reads code for FUN, she has an Instagram account dedicated to how ugly her feet are, a guy once asked her for her number and she replied "Why? Do you need to call me?" She has a blog about the correlation between living with Aspergers and scientific systems, she shouts at rude people in the street, she’s got the filthiest laugh you’ve ever heard. I wish I could be a true original like her, I’m just all lipstick and tailoring. Millie: A lot of people in this day and age use fashion and makeup and all the extra props of life as a disguise, hiding who they really are. Lydia is the opposite of this, in that she engages with them as a form of celebration of who she is; creative, elaborate, unique, authentic, reckless and confident. Lydia is outwardly and inwardly creative, where her inherent vision for her work and ways of life are paralleled. It makes me so happy that a person like my sister is out there. She’s a true optimist, even if she is self-critical, she makes every day a celebration. What do you have in common? Lydia: I’m spiky and assertive, and she’s gentle and assertive. I suppose we live by the same truths and beliefs but we portray them very differently. We both also love our own time, we’re both sociable introverts, we like to be alone. We don’t drink, are both very focussed on our profession and contributing something positive to the world, we both value family above everything else. Millie: Apart from our biology, and dark sense of humour, we both have an internal love for ho fun, which is a thick rice noodle dish from China. We both have a great sense of unity with our family, and with each other, as we have always been a team – which neither of us can live without.
Emily (left), 24 and Katy (right), 26
Where are you from? North London. What do you do for a living? Emily: A few things at the moment but mostly embroidery. Katy: I work in mental health as a clinical support worker for people in acute crisis. Describe your sister in five words… Emily: Kind, funny, protective, reasonable, compassionate. Katy: My favourite person in the world. What’s the most beautiful thing about her? Emily: Her eyes change colour depending on the weather. Katy: Em's laugh is probably my favourite thing to hear. What makes her original? Emily: Her sense of humour, it's strange in a very good way. Katy: I'm biased, but I think her sense of humour is brilliant. She's very quick and dry. What do you have in common? Emily: We don't have to say anything to make each other laugh or know what the other is thinking. Katy: People say we're very alike. We have a lot of private jokes and can talk to each other in a way I can't with other people. We also have a strong love of Cataluna. Name some of the ways you’re different… Emily: Katy's more responsible and intrinsically caring to everyone, I'm probably more self-centred if I'm being honest... Katy: Definitely our temperament. Emily's more upfront with her anger and I tend to bottle it up. I think she's more laid-back than I am too.
What quality do you most admire in your sister? Emily: Her compassion. Katy: She's more determined than anyone I know. She doesn't value herself enough which I think in part is her being humble but also doubting herself. She's incredibly creative and very thoughtful. If you could steal something from her (clothes, personality traits, facial features) what would it be? Emily: Her focus and strength. Katy: I think a lot of her lifestyle actually. I love my job but I do envy her free time and the creative elements to what she does, which I think she doesn't always enjoy (she works and is worked very hard). But being creative is definitely something I wish I did more of in my life. Also her ability to talk to strangers. How has your sister's style changed as she's grown up? Emily: I'd say she dresses like someone who knows who they are. Katy: Emily's always known her style. What do you wish your sister knew about herself? Emily: I wish she knew how much I admire her and always have. Katy: How much I love her and that she keeps me alive.
Meneesha (left), 30, Aneaka (middle), 32 and Monique (right), 24
Where are you from? Southall, London. What do you do for a living? Meneesha: Curator. Aneaka: I work for Carbon Co-op, a co-operative which helps Manchester residents take action on climate change by improving their home's energy efficiency. Monique: I've just finished a history of art degree and started a small domestic moving business. What’s the most beautiful thing about your sisters? Meneesha: Aneaka’s values and morals, and Monique’s ability to make everyone love her in five seconds. Monique: That they are lucky enough to look like me! What do you have in common? Meneesha: Our love for each other and our family. We all love a party and are always the last ones on the dance floor! Aneaka: Meneesha and I have both got 'gora' (white) hubbies, we love to dance, to eat samosas from Shahenshah (the best samosa shop in the world) and we love cycling. Monique and I both want to be Princess Mononoke, we love to show off how strong we are, we're both romantics – though I'd admit it less easily than her. Monique: We've got quite a lot in common – especially as I'm the youngest – because they both influenced my tastes. For example my massive love of David Bowie stems from watching Labyrinth, firstly with Aneaka when I was about 7 but I forgot what it was called and could only remember a scene with loads of goblins, I remember being so gutted that I couldn't remember what it was until I watched it again when I was about 13 with Meneesha.
What makes them original? Meneesha: Aneaka is 100% herself and independent but devotes herself to others. Monique gives zero fucks but is still the most courageous and loving person. What did you argue about when you were little? Meneesha: Me and Aneaka argued about everything, I was pretty jealous of her growing up. Monique and I argued about her not eating her food! Name some of the ways you’re different… Monique: While we are all quite similar, neither of them appreciate period dramas enough! How have they changed? Aneaka: Meneesha has grown from finding life difficult at school to having an incredibly successful career, a lovely and doting partner and a great flat, I'm really proud of her. Monique has always been bold, unique and charted her own path through life and not following the crowd. So in some ways I don't think she's changed, although she has toned down her 'Monique-o-logues'! Monique: They've both definitely got less annoying.
What do you wish your sister knew about herself? Meneesha: I think they're both pretty self-aware, which is one of the things I love about them. Aneaka needs to know how beautiful she is, she was nervous about doing the shoot and I'm so happy she relaxed into it and enjoyed it in the end. Monique could do with being a little selfish, put herself first and think about what's best for her rather than other people. Aneaka: Monique sometimes worries about what she's doing in life as she's not taken the conventional path, but what she doesn't realise is that she has courageously broken the mould and has always been true to herself, and really that's all she needs to do, nothing more. Me and Misha went to the same school and we both ended up with this 'I'm not good enough, I have to work harder' complex, I think what we both need to know about ourselves is that we are good enough, in fact we are great and we don't need to prove this to anyone.
Katia (left), 23 and Claudia (right), 23
Where are you from? We were born in north London, but we’re half Italian, half Portuguese. Describe your sister in five words… Claudia: Creative, determined, clever, funny, inspiring. Katia: Caring, loving, compassionate, rational and sweet. What’s the most beautiful thing about her? Claudia: She’s a very hard worker, she always does so well with anything she puts her mind to. Katia: The most beautiful thing about my sister is that she’ll always look out for me. What makes her original? Claudia: I think Katia is a very open person, particularly with her emotions, she really does wear her heart on her sleeve. Katia: She’s very naturally witty. What do you have in common? Claudia: We practically have most of the same friends, qualifications, similar sense of humour, very similar interests as we're both creatives – we both studied graphic design at Brighton and at the moment we both see ourselves entering into art direction. Katia: We share a lot of the same interests in fashion, art, music, sport and career paths in graphic design/art direction. We’re also very competitive with each other and in general, and we’re big football fans. Sometimes we walk out of our rooms after getting ready to go out and we end up being dressed in such similar outfits. Then we argue over who should change. Name some of the ways you’re different… Claudia: Although we have very similar interests and life goals, we do have quite different characters. Katia can be more dominant and is more of an extrovert, whereas I can be quieter, but in a laid-back/composed sort of way. Katia: One very important objective difference is that I support Liverpool and she supports Arsenal.
What quality do you most admire in your sister? Claudia: How funny she is, my sister has a such a good sense of humour and can leave me half the time in stitches. What quality do you most admire in your sister? Katia: I’ve always admired the fact that she never really cares what people think of her. How has she changed? Claudia: I feel I've seen a change in my sister over the past few years since leaving home and living away at university. I see how independent she has become and how proactive she can be, which also motivates me. What do you wish your sister knew about herself? Claudia: Although my sister can seem like more of an extrovert, she doesn't have too much confidence in her appearance sometimes and can be very self-critical (where appearances are concerned). She doesn't realise how beautiful she is and that no one's perfect! Katia: I wish my sister had more confidence in her ability. She doesn't know how talented she is.
Saesha (left), 21 and Ruby (right), 17
Where are you from? Manchester. What do you do for a living? Saesha: I've just graduated with a photography degree, so I'm carrying on with personal photography projects as well as working in a cafe/bar on the side. Ruby: I’m finishing my A-levels but I have a part-time job in a restaurant as sous chef. What’s the most beautiful thing about your sister? Saesha: The way her stunning personality matches her exterior. Ruby: She always manages to cheer me up. What makes her original? Saesha: Her ability to connect with the camera the way no one else I've ever shot has (which probably comes from years of practice with me photographing her since she was young). Oh, and her naturally ginger hair! Ruby: Her constantly changing hairstyles/colours. Name some of the ways you’re different… Saesha: She's way more of a people person than I am and a lot more emotionally resilient. Ruby: She can be very last-minute in things that she does or places that she needs to be. Considering she's my big sister, I'm taller than her. What quality do you most admire in your sister? Saesha: Her kindheartedness. Ruby: Her ability to pick up a pen and doodle and it turn out to be something really good.
If you could steal something from her (clothes, personality traits, facial features) what would it be? Saesha: Everything. I wish I was her! Ruby: Her eyelashes, they're so long! How has she changed? Saesha: She's matured into the most beautiful young woman and I'm so proud of her. What do you wish your sister knew about herself? Saesha: I wish she knew how much she means to me and also how much she's helped me through the past few years. What do you wish your sister knew about herself? Ruby: That she's capable of so much and she deserves the world (and more).
Florence (left), 22 and Matilda (right), 25
Where are you from? London. What do you do for a living? Flo: I’m a full-time student studying Arabic and French at University of Leeds. Tilda: I'm a photographer, I buy and sell vintage clothes online, and I tutor French. Describe your sister in five words… Flo: Hilarious, strong, talented, supportive, warm. Tilda: Brave, kindhearted, passionate, funny, strong. What’s the most beautiful thing about her? Flo: She can be so selfless. When I’m stressed and helpless and putting off important things, she sorts me right out and gets me back on track. She also has the most incredible eyes. Tilda: She's so mature. I forget that sometimes. I see her faced with a difficult situation or upset by something and she's so brilliant at letting things go, picking her battles and seeing the best in a person or a problem. It's something I find really hard so she's a positive influence. What do you have in common? Flo: We are both able to encourage the other in ways no one else could. Both of us are seriously into feminism and women’s rights and our place in society and the pressures placed upon us as women. We don’t shave; I stopped shaving four years ago and Tilda closely followed a couple of years ago. Tilda: We've grown more and more alike with age, and both find many of the same things infuriating, for example, people talking over other people, or the ways that society dictates how we should and shouldn't behave as women. We both question ignorance when we hear it. When we're together we can be a force to be reckoned with! We have a pretty much identical sense of humour. Our mum's super silly so we've grown up being completely ridiculous at home and I'll be in hysterics with Florence the majority of the time we spend together.
What quality do you most admire in your sister? Flo: I admire Matilda’s ability to get on with anyone. She’s always been able to connect with lots of different people, which I sometimes struggle with. I love how open and friendly she is when she photographs people. She’s also got a great moral compass. Matilda: Florence is a really strong person, and in the last two years she's pushed herself so much. Volunteering at a women's charity in Ghana, starting university in Leeds and studying Arabic despite not even knowing the alphabet or how to say hello, and now she's living and studying in Morocco with three friends. I admire her ability to put herself in uncomfortable situations. If you could steal something from her, what would it be? Flo: Tilda has over the years developed a number of issues with her body, issues that I don’t have. If I could steal something from her I would definitely steal some of the health-related things she has to deal with on a daily basis. If I could carry some of the weight for her we could connect over it and help each other through it but as it stands Tilda has to deal with a lot of stuff on her own and I admire her so much for it. Tilda: Her unapologetic body confidence. Florence stopped shaving over four years ago and she completely owns it. I haven't shaved for over two years but I'm still not entirely comfortable being publicly hairy in my day-to-day life. I've been with Florence on packed trains and realise people are staring as she holds on to the hand rail above her head; and she couldn't care less. I'm almost there, and the more time I spend around her, the less I give a shit.
Maya, 22, Alex, 16, Vic, 16, Josie, 19 (left to right)
Where are you from? Dad is Chinese, from Hong Kong, Mum is British. Live south of the river. What do you do for a living? Maya: Freelance hair and makeup artist. Josie: Uni studying music. Alex: Sixth-form student. Vic: Sixth-form student. Describe your sisters in five words… Maya: Hilarious, strong, loving, beautiful, wavy. Josie: Funny, pretty, loud, fun, dramatic. Alex: Wavy, extra, funny, popular, outgoing. Vic: Too blessed to be stressed. What’s the most beautiful thing about them? Maya: Their hair and eyes. Josie: Hair and eyes. Alex: Love and support. Vic: Eyes and tooth gems. What do you have in common? Alex: Whatever we wear we always look good. Vic: Our sister rings and necklaces. Name some of the ways you’re different… Maya: I would say we each have our own clothing style, which sometimes crosses into one another’s. Although we are tight, we each have our individual personalities. Josie: We draw attention when we go out as a family.
If you could steal something from your sisters (clothes, personality traits, facial features) what would it be? Maya: I’d steal Josie’s busy-ness, she’s always out, also her eye for good charity shop garms. I would steal Alex’s jawline and dedication to going to the gym, and Vic’s funny one-liners. Josie: I’d steal Maya’s freckles, Alex’s grey fluffy coat and her bum. Vic’s TNs. Alex: I’d steal Maya’s clothes, Josie’s voice, Vic’s ukulele and piano skills. Vic: I’d steal Maya’s skinny legs, Josie’s clear skin from her chest and her back and Alex’s toned belly and bum. How have your sisters' styles changed as they've grown up? Alex: Maya brought back tooth gems, Josie went from not wanting to even trim her hair, to now having the shortest hair of all of us. Being twins with Vic, Mum would never put us in the same clothes as babies, but now we tend to dress similar. Vic: Maya cut her hair and now dresses appropriately for her age but better. Josie now has no fear in what she wears. Me and Alex have just got wavier. How have your sisters changed? Maya: Josie is so much more confident now, and it’s so amazing to see her do what she wants to do and be who she wants to be, and people love her for being her. I forget that the twins are now like young adults, the fact that they are 17 this year is mad, I still think of them as 12. But they have both matured into beautiful young women. We are all just as close entering our adult years. I am proud to call these three my sisters.
Hannah (left), 17 and Fran (right), 21
Where are you from? Manchester. What do you do for a living? Both students at the moment (college and uni) studying media and fashion and working part-time in retail. Describe your sister in five words… Fran: Emotional, sympathetic, honest (even when I don't want her to be), endearing, second mum (even though she's younger) – that's two words but without a space it's one! Hannah: Chaotic, protective (like wayyy overprotective), loyal, nonchalant, single-minded. What’s the most beautiful thing about her? Fran: She's the kindest soul you'll ever meet, it's the littlest things like making me a brew and sitting with me in silence because she knows I need her there. Hannah: Even though sometimes overprotective, I know regardless of what I do or say, whether I'm right or wrong, she'll always, always stand in my corner. What makes her original? Fran: Her sense of empathy, even though she's younger than me she can sense the way me, and people around us feel about something sometimes before they even know, or want to admit it themselves. Hannah: She has this weird ability to let things go over her head, she doesn't really dwell on emotions too long, she just kind of gets on with it.
Name some of the ways you’re different… Fran: The way we emotionally deal with things we've realised is really different as we've grown older and we're still kind of learning to understand that. Hannah likes to talk about things whereas I'd prefer to get things straight in my own head without actually vocalising it. And she puts ketchup on pizza, which is disgusting, and she doesn't like olives, which is also weird. What quality do you most admire in your sister? Fran: Her resilience. And she can concentrate on one thing for the longest time and that's a skill I really wish I had. Hannah: The fact she really doesn't give a shit about what anyone thinks, she only really values the opinions of those closest to her.
If you could steal something from her, what would it be? Fran: If I could have her whole face I'd take it happily. Hannah: How unaffected she is by things and probably all of her shoes. What do you wish your sister knew about herself? Fran: I wish she knew how amazing and intelligent she is and that she doesn't ever need to question herself because everything she does comes with the kindest of intentions. Hannah: That she is actually doing the right thing for her by following a career in fashion and that she will actually get far in it despite what others say.
Phoebe (left), 24, Grace, 18 and Dorothy, 18
Where are you from? London via Wales. What do you do for a living? Phoebe: Make music! I perform, often with my two sisters Grace and Dorothy, as 'Phoebe Coco'. I also compose music for picture, and performance, with my voice, the piano and a heap of eclectic instruments. Grace: I'm just about to start university, I will be studying geography! In the future I would love to be involved with the creation of climate and environment policy. Dorothy: I'm off to university to study English literature. What makes your sisters original? Phoebe: I've never met anyone like them. There’s something of a different era about them, and probably that applies to the three of us. Something quite Enid Blyton meets Pippi Longstocking. You can gauge this from the second you meet them, it’s very enchanting. Grace: I think Phoebe's music is hugely original, and the range of genres she composes is, to me, really impressive. I think one of the things that makes Dorothy original is the way in which she does not feel the need to conform to what people around her are doing, and instead shows her ways to be the best. What did you argue about when you were little? Phoebe: Probably who got to play the piano next! Then we realised we could all play together. Grace: Turning off the light at bedtime! I would always want to carry on reading when Dorothy wanted to go to sleep and that caused a fair few arguments. What do you have in common? Phoebe: A love of music and books. Freckles. Pianos. Horses. The outdoors. Long dark hair. Noses. Teeth. Views on the world and politics. Timekeeping. Vegetarianism. Name some of the ways you’re different… Phoebe: Sleeping patterns, nightlife, views on the world and politics. Dorothy: Perhaps in the way that both my sisters seem very outgoing; my older sister has no problem whatsoever in picking up a guitar and doing an impromptu performance in a room full of people. How have they changed? Phoebe: They have both become fiercely passionate about what they believe in, there’s fire in these two! They are now both about to go to university, and although I will truly miss having them here with me in London it is wonderful to see them as young women, ready to take on the world, ready to do anything, diving deep into the dreamy waves of the next chapter of life. However much any of us three change through the tides, we will always be connected in the same sea. What do you wish your sisters knew about themselves? Phoebe: I would like them to know that they can always be free to be utterly themselves, as they are two truly beautiful and charming people both inside and out and I love them exactly as they are. Grace: I wish Dorothy knew how much fun it is being twins with her and always having her around, although I also wish she knew how much she hogs the piano (although her playing does sound lovely!), I hope Phoebe knows how much I love to hang out with her, and that she is a huge role model to me! Dorothy: That the things they do are perfect.