Since becoming a parent of twins, I’ve become sensitive to stereotypes about twins and multiples. Some of these stereotypes are generalizations about twins that are widely held by the public. They are mostly based on misassumptions and misunderstandings. Others are perpetuated by the media, in characters from movies, television shows and literature. We’ve encountered both. While many are harmless, sometimes they can be hurtful to twins and their families. At the very least, these characterizations are based on the assumption that all twin pairs are the same, overlooking the unique traits and personalities of each individual, and discounting that the relationship between each set of twins is distinct and different. Twins don’t conform to these generalizations any more than other victims of stereotypes based on race, nationality, gender, sexual preference, or appearance.
A stereotype is defined as “a standardized mental picture that is held in common by members of a group and that represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude, or uncritical judgment” or “something conforming to a fixed or general pattern” (dictionary.com) Many stereotypes about twins are based on ignorance, or a lack of understanding about what twins are and their relationship with each other. The public fascination with twins fuels the stereotypes. Many assume that being a twin is wonderful, but most twins would acknowledge that it is not always so. People assume that twinship satisfies a basic human longing for companionship, but twins are not always best buddies. This video from two twin sisters does a good job of expressing some of the conflicting feelings that twins experience and explaining how generalizations and stereotypes about twins can be hurtful.
Stereotypes About Twins
Let’s look at some of the stereotypes about twins.
Twins should look and act alike. Not all twins are identical twins,and even then, they are not clones. While identical twins may have the same DNA, their genetic origins do not make them exactly alike. Some identical twins look amazingly similar, while others look slightly different. Some identical twins strive to distinguish their appearances so that they purposely don’t look alike; some have different appearances due to environmental factors.
Fraternal -- or dizygotic -- twins are no more or less similar than any two siblings. Because they are born at the same time, and likely spend more time together than singleton siblings, they may develop similar preferences. Sometimes they are even more “alike” than identical twins! They may look alike, just as some brothers and sisters favor each other.
Conversely, another generalization about twins is that they are studies in contrast. People attempt to classify them into opposing characteristics. Constant comparison meant that twins are always measured in relation to each other, instead of being appreciated for themselves. There is a "good" twin and a "bad" twin, for example, a fussy baby and an easygoing baby. A teacher once tried to label my twin girls as "the smart one" and "the pretty one." (Yes, we complained to the administration -- each of my girls are both smart and pretty!) Twins -- and their parents -- constantly fight a bombardment of questions intended to evaluate and rank them. Which one crawled first? Which one is more outgoing? Which one is more athletic? Which one has better grades?
Bottom line, you can't characterize every set of twins as being alike or different. They are not clones, and they are not opposites. They are unique individuals, alike in some ways and different in others.
Twins have a supernatural connection. It is difficult for non-twins to understand the complex relationship between twins. People want to attribute special “powers” to twins. While there is no scientific evidence to support the existence of twin telepathy, there are plenty of amazing stories of twin coincidences and instances of seemingly telepathic communication. Sometimes twins appear to know what the other is thinking, or finish each other's sentences. Some relate tales of knowing the other was hurt or ill, even when they were in different locations. But not all twins encounter this kind of experience, and this stereotype can make twins feel that they are not "special" if they don't have an amazing supernatural connection.
Birth order characteristics apply to twins. I've talked in depth about the misapplication of birth order characteristics to twins. People seem insistent on knowing which twin is "older" and which is "younger." Based on that information, they try to draw conclusions about the personality of the twins. The older one must be the leader, while the younger one is dependent. The first born should act more grown up than his or her twin. Most twins are born with a few minutes of each other. The personality traits that characterize siblings develop over the course of years and are formed around family dynamics that simply don't apply to twins.
They are best buddies - or worst enemies. The truth is, twins are usually best buddies and worst enemies, all at the same time. Many twins are very close and most all fight intensely at some point. But every twin relationship is different and it is unfair to assume that twins have to be best friends, or that they will dislike each other. Like all sibling relationships, the twin relationship changes over time, as children develop and mature.
Identical twins are more special than fraternal twins. About one third of twins are monozygotic -- or identical. This classification of twins has less to do with being alike, but actually describes how twins form. (For more information, see this explanation of zygosity.) The assumption that twins should be alike -- see above -- sometimes leads to the generalization that only identical twins are fascinating, or that nonidentical twins don't also have a special bond. It's important to refrain from labeling twins based on their zygosity, and appreciate each twin as a unique individual, and each twin relationship as special.