Family Ties

Do You Have “Older Sister Energy”?

Unpacking the newly celebrated personality type sweeping social media.

Originally Published: 
"Older sister energy" refers to the personality type cropping up on social media.
Caroline Wurtzel/Bustle; Getty Images; AppleTV+; Wilson Webb/© 2019 CTMG

One night, I was hanging out with my younger sister when she declared that she was too tired to brush her teeth before bed. First, I begged: “Ari, that’s disgusting.” Then, I resorted to bargaining: “Just come to the bathroom with me, we’ll brush together.” Finally, I broke down. “Fine, I’ll brush your teeth for you.”

I imagine you have a few questions, which I’ll gladly answer: 1) No, we weren’t children. I was 26; she was 21. 2) Yes, I really went through with it — there’s video evidence to prove it. 3) Yes, there was alcohol involved. But the question I’ve long asked myself is: Why was I so hell-bent on preserving my sister’s dental hygiene anyway?

The answer, I’ve come to find, lies in what could be called “older sister energy,” the newly celebrated personality type that’s been cropping up in sometimes comedic, other times contemplative memes across social media. Ones that celebrate the Type A, high-strung, meddling tendencies typically associated with being an older sister (think “Were you really a ‘pleasure to have in class’ or were you just the bossy oldest daughter with an undiagnosed anxiety disorder”) and that have become so popular that the hashtag “older sister” has been viewed 1.2 billion times on TikTok, with the more pointed phrasing “older sister problems” clocking in at 179 million.

This uptick in public displays of birth order makes sense, as we’re in an age in which we’re obsessed with sharing what makes us, us across social media. Astrology, for instance, has had its biggest surge in popularity since the 1970s largely thanks to the Internet, and personality tests like Myers-Briggs continue to proliferate across platforms like Instagram and Reddit. Proclaiming our “older sister energy” — or wherever you may fall on the familial pecking order — is just the latest and greatest form of self-expression. “I believe the rise in eldest daughter [content] comes from a place of eldest daughters wanting a community of other eldest daughters who understand them,” says Sherri Lu, who runs Instagram’s @eldestdaughterclub. “The funny memes about it are sometimes the first time many of us realize that our experience is shared and that it is possible to openly talk about it with others who ‘get it.’”

But the study of birth order is far from new. In the early 1900s, psychotherapist Alfred Adler began to research why siblings, despite typically sharing the same nature and nurture, are often so different. And what Adler discovered is that while every family is unique, there are similarities between parents, children, and siblings. (Others, however, contend that birth order is nothing more than junk science.) According to Adler, firstborns tend to be reliable and controlling, while middle children are more likely to be cooperative and flexible, and the youngest are viewed as fun-loving and uncomplicated. “Firstborn women tend to be pleasers; everybody’s got to be happy,” says Kevin Leman, author of The Birth Order Book. “They’re the leaders of the family, they tend to be achievers. They’re more likely to be the pilot, the engineer, the architect, or the English teacher. Anywhere where structure and perfection pays, you’re going to find the firstborn.” (He says firstborn men, alternatively, tend to be controllers.)

This rang true among the many older sisters I spoke with, who also find themselves to be the planners, problem-solvers, and sticklers. “I pack sunscreen for Yankees games and remind everyone to hydrate between innings. I keep everyone on schedule, whether it’s catching a train or making a dinner reservation,” says Bustle editor Marina Watts, who’s the eldest of three girls. “When we were younger, I would pick the time we would all wake up on Christmas morning and negotiate with our parents about how early was early enough. I would pick the games we would play and make the rules while playing with Barbies and American Girl Dolls.”

Many also found themselves replicating these dynamics with their friends. Take Adult Drama author Natalie Beach, whose friendship with Scammer’s Caroline Calloway has inspired books, magazine features, and essays. “In my mind, the purest way of relating to another person was to be their ‘older sister,’” Beach, who also points out that she’s been “the captain of every single sports team I’ve ever played on,” says of their relationship. “I completely overstep bounds of how to be involved in another person’s life. My therapist says that this is the ‘hero-helper’ type, which can get you into trouble because you are trying to save someone’s life but they’re not asking you to do that.”

A Hundred Other Girls author and former Bustle lifestyle editor Iman Hariri-Kia echoes this sentiment. “In college, I remember slapping a boy who broke my friend’s heart, then spending the entire night apologizing to her for escalating things in a way she didn’t want,” she says. “Just a few years ago, I took time off to make myself available for a friend going through a breakup, even though she never asked to and wanted to be alone. It’s not great, but I’m working on it.”

Of course, extenuating circumstances might impede an older sister from conforming to these archetypes. If you grew up in a family with many children, birth order subgroups may form. Adopted kids, those in blended families, or ones who have lost a sibling often defy categorization. On the opposite end of the spectrum, societal factors can only heighten these traits. “My ‘eldest daughter’ dynamic is made infinitely more interesting by the fact that my family is first-generation in this country, which means that I have spent a lot of my childhood helping out as parent No. 3 [and] had to handle a lot of the firsts on my own — first person to apply to college, first to move out, etc. Then I had to help my sisters when their time came,” says (Un)Cover Girl podcast co-host and former Bustle writer Ivana Rihter, referencing the syndrome that’s rooted in the emotional and physical labor eldest siblings often take on.

Yet Rihter also finds the fun in her overachiever older sister tendencies: “I recently cooked a four-course meal for a dinner party and decided that I was going to make all the vessels at my pottery studio. Because of course it’s not enough to just make the food by hand; I also had to make the plates and glasses.”

Still, despite all the headaches, expectations, and desire to handcraft your own cutlery, not one of my subjects would trade their birth order for any other role in the family. Because, as Hariri-Kia puts it, “What else would I write about?”

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