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Photo by Natalie Shields

In her online video, delicate white flowers wing from her temple, their filigreed petals moving as she does. Her eyes, already large and almond shaped, mesmerize next to this floating phantasm. I suppress the urge to giggle.

My sister is a nuclear engineer and a lawyer. Right now, she looks like an animated fairy, which is her intention.

She stepped down from her good job at a law firm nine years ago, so in love with her firstborn that to accept seeing her daughter twice a day felt like repeating mistakes we suffered as children. Too ambitious to remain at home, she joined a multi-level skincare marketing firm. The company trains individual sales consultants to use their personal social media profiles as the main avenue for product advertisement and team recruitment. She puts herself out there. She gets results. I give the video a thumbs up.

I haven’t liked many of her promotional posts. It’s hard. I don’t break into clicks whenever her company puts out a new product. I dislike how this business monetizes networks that don’t belong to it. Perhaps I am uncomfortable blurring the boundaries between personal and professional, despite the existence of this essay. I am inconsistent.

When I was a girl studying my mother’s magazines for instructions in womanliness, I used to seek out before-and-after pictures—Weight loss! New hairdo! New you!—until I noticed how hollow I felt after I put down an issue. Emptied of the joys of unrepentant eating, chastised for the delights of sunbathing. When my sister uses her platform to show before-and-afters of women’s faces, aging in reverse with the dutiful application of numbered creams, I can’t like them. #itellyouiwontdoit

As women, we are worth more than our youth. Online, I refuse to submit to this indignity. I’ve adjusted my settings to see fewer close studies of contrasts. Lines and shadows are best left to artists.

The naked truth, though? I want those results for myself.

I live in that liminal space. As a writer, I post links to my work. Like my sister, I upload pictures (of favored books, but still). I notice the number of times I get retweeted. My literary friends comment with words of praise, just like her skin care team. My people use fewer hashtags, but selfies are involved. We all clamor for attention. The difference is the content, or do I mean context.

The way I see it, I push art, and she pushes beauty.

In person, my sister shimmers and glows, the line of her nose in harmony with the curve of her cheekbones, her smile damned near impossible to resist. A strategist at heart, though of changing mind, she knows capital when she sees it. When her already lustrous lashes grew to a worrisome length after application of the new boosting serum, she made sure the internet knew it.

This woman was first in her class at nuke school in the navy. I take deep breaths. Our sisterhood has survived many hasty judgments. We do better when we learn from each other. She knows what she wants, and goes after it. Always has.

She gave me a tube. It contains a wand. I drag its wet tip along my lashes and wait.

In the end, I broke it to her in the best way I knew how, using the language of business. I told her that my personal brand strategy does not allow me to repost or feature her promotional content. She took it like the champion she is. We have forgiven much to remain a family.

But I tried the products she gifted me. Too forgetful to buy cotton balls, I layered on toner with a clump of toilet paper. Trying to ignore the historical precedents, I smoothed skin lightening lotion over my forehead, where a mask of melasma emerged during my pregnancies, across freckles that no longer seem cute on my nose, along scars I made with too much scrutiny. I dabbed cream around my sockets and thought of skulls. I applied moisturizer and sunscreen to seal the deal.

A chemical tang in my mouth put me off the branded skin care regime. I prefer my essential oils, my natural butters, my handmade creams. I do take pleasure in perfuming myself, as women have done for millennia from which we have not escaped. In my great struggle to believe in my own humanity, I’ve come to accept self care as a ritual like any other. It can soothe, or it can prepare for war.

And I can tell you that though my sister and I battle, she and I are the same, committed to unconditional sisterhood though trained to compete in any arena. This one, I will cede.

I have participated in many erasures in my life, but none so diligent as my effort to hide the years that made me the woman I hoped I would become. Someone who laughs and sits in the sun, scowling at books.