“My drive from work is too short for me to decide what to listen to on Spotify #firstworldproblems” was a recent tweet from the Twitter account First World Problems. The tweet reached over 50,000 people, and it was only one in a long list of mildly amusing little complaints about an easy, well-fed, upper-middle class life.
The idea of first world problems has recently become a meme, with inspired tweeters hashtagging the phrase on the back of every observation that doesn’t seem world-changing or ring out like a strangled scream from the depths of oppression. It’s kind of a fun trend. Maybe it serves to remind us all of what we already have. It offers a little dose of perspective. And when it first appeared, I was totally on board. But then I started seeing the hashtag cropping up a lot more when women were talking about all those things that get labeled “women’s issues.”
I started seeing it in the comments section under painfully honest essays about weight discrimination or reports about the billion dollar cosmetics industry. “First world problems” was being tacked on women’s conversations everywhere I looked, often by men who sounded like they wished these women would just shut up. Sometimes by women who went on to state that they themselves had much bigger, more serious problems. Before I knew it, “first world problems,” was looking a lot like “shut the hell up, no one cares,” in a lot of contexts. And that is not only not cool, it’s just wrong.
“Women’s issues,” aren’t the same as “first world problems,” even when they occur in the relative comfort of the first world. The discrimination that women face everyday, whether in slyly subtle or in shockingly overt ways is the product of a history of misogyny that is still wrapped around the cultures that we live in today, squeezing them like a python. In some places, at some points, the python is suffocatingly obvious, and women don’t have basic legal rights. In other places, like here, in my world, women have many basic legal rights but still bear the brunt of poverty, still don’t earn as much as men, and often grow up under the quiet, crushing impression that unless we look a certain, very specific way, we are failing.
Conversations about beauty and body image often get relegated to the realm of “doesn’t really matter, no one is dying.” But this is the wrong way to look at these issues. Not just because people are actually dying (i.e. of eating disorders), but because whenever we tell people to shut up because their problems don’t matter, we shut down access to the whole story of what life is like right now. And we miss out on noticing how so many problems with our world are interconnected. Stringent beauty requirements may tell us a lot about what a society thinks of women’s value in general, for example.
But even if this wasn’t the case, and body image had nothing to do with widespread sexism, the effort to dismiss “women’s issues” as frivolous and irrelevant feels a lot like sexism itself.
By pretending that only rich, white women have time to care about issues like body image and beauty, we not only misunderstand the experience of rich, white women as flawless and meaningless, but we also ignore the millions of other women who deal with similar issues, even if these issues are not the most pressing ones in their lives. Pressure surrounding beauty is not limited by class and race. Actually, as the documentary “Girl Model” points out so disturbingly, being beautiful can represent the only way out of a life of poverty for many girls growing up in rural, destitute villages.
Some things really are first world problems. Should you get a BMW or a Lexus crossover SUV? Ack! Decisions!! They each have so much to offer!! How many extra cup holders are we talking, though? That is a first world problem.
Right now, I’m agonizing a little in the back of my head over which bouncy seat to sign up for on my baby registry. There are so many of them! It’s seriously confusing. Some of them make five oceanic movements. Some of them have all these dangly things hanging over the top, to keep the baby distracted while you frantically call your mom and beg to be rescued, I guess. Some of them you have to bounce yourself, but they look prettier. And that is a first world problem.
But if I write about the way I learned that gaining weight might make me worth less as a person, so I was cruel to myself when my body naturally changed in that direction, then that should be part of a larger conversation about why so many women also experience that concern, and why our bodies are often the focal point of our self-loathing, and why the messages about weight gain are so widespread and toxic that we feel compelled to comment on our own weight incessantly, to one another, and to ourselves. These are not first world problems. They are problems that women have that may not be life-threatening but are always important, relevant, and informative about the way the world is set up.
So let’s keep talking. Let’s talk until we figure things out. #realworldproblems #dontstop #equalitynow.
Reprinted with permission from The Frisky. Want more?
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The term “first world problems” has been increasingly bandied about in cultural commentary and online conversations. The social posts are fun to read—especially the memes—as many of them are self-deprecating, yet accurately portray those little frustrations of modern life. If nothing else, it's an easy way to spend an hour on the computer. First world problems, as the Internet depicts them, are most definitely crises unique to countries with enough money and time to worry about the meaningless details.
Coined first in 1979, but not regularly used until 2011, a first world problem according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is:
n. a problem affecting the First World and its inhabitants; spec. a cause of frustration or dissatisfaction regarded as trivial, and arising only as a result of the economic and social privilege, access to technology, etc., associated with the First World.
This definition implies exclusivity. Only those in the first world can have these problems; these problems are for those whose lives are already economically and socially comfortable so they can afford the time to worry about poor cell reception. (Or substandard latte foam).
Problems are no longer exclusive
The problem with the OED's definition and the Internet's interpretation of first world problems is that they insinuate “first world” problems can only exist in the First World. Not so. People's concerns about the trivial, do not exist independently; they do not materialize once all basic needs are met.
The problem with the OED's definition and the Internet's interpretation of first world problems is that they insinuate “first world” problems can only exist in the First World.
Problems and a community’s relationship with its problems is complicated. According to a Pew Research study, the spreading of technology usage to emerging economies has been a mixed bag, but “overall, people in the emerging and developing countries surveyed see the internet as having a positive effect on education, personal relationships, and the economy." Yet, with this proliferation of technology, more and more experiences and information are shared, which generates a new complexity of problems. The playing field is leveling (slowly), which makes it harder for countries and people to claim exclusive rights to problems or issues.
The playing field is leveling (slowly), which makes it harder for countries and people to claim exclusive rights to problems or issues.
The Nigerian writer Teju Cole took the concept of #firstworldproblems to task in a series of tweets from 2011. Cole argues that first world problems are not just for the First World and that people from everywhere share experiences, both big and small. Cole tweets, “I don't like this expression ‘First World problems.’ It is false, and it is condescending. Yes, Nigerians struggle with floods or infant mortality. But these same Nigerians also deal with mundane and seemingly luxurious hassles. . . Here’s a First World problem: The inability to see that others are as fully complex and as keen on technology and pleasure as you are.”
Five Books That Provide Global Perspective
How can individuals, communities and companies better understand the complexity of these global problems? And along the way, learn more about shared struggles and experiences? One way is through compelling narratives about people and communities that reflect the complex nature of relationships and the desires for basic needs, as well as pleasure.
The five books below illustrate major problems—global problems—but also the smaller, mundane problems that live within these greater issues.
The Orbital Perspective: Lessons in Seeing the Big Picture from a Journey of 71 Million Miles by Astronaut Ron Garan
The Fix: How Nations Survive and Thrive in a World in Decline by Jonathan Tepperman
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in an American City by Matthew Desmond
The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison
This is How: Surviving What You Think You Can’t by Augusten Burroughs
This book is the quintessential discussion on the big picture. Astronaut Ron Garan talks about viewing Earth aboard the spacecraft Discovery. He can see countries and borders erected that represent decades of conflict. He also warns about the tendency to reduce the complexity of the world by simplification. ". . . we tend to lump situations, people, groups, and nations into categories. It is much easier to label an entire group of people than to deal with the myriad complex factors that can lead individuals and groups to do things we don't understand."
Don't be put off by the title of this book; it is a book on hope, and solutions. Each chapter looks at one of 'The Terrible Ten" as author Tepperman refers to the major issues he discusses—immigration, inequality, civil war, and corruption, just to name a few. Nothing trivial about these topics, and yet the robust solutions executed by leaders and revolutionaries are all based on viewing these world problems in a greater context, and understanding how to work within the social and cultural structures of one's community.
The solutions are out there; countries must first try to understand the problems in-depth. Then, and only then, can they find the right solution. The unifying message is that these problems are worldwide; no country, “developing” or “developed” is immune.
This unexpected hit by Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond is an in-depth analysis of a collection of families and individuals struggling to establish homes and avoid evictions in Milwaukee. But more than that, the book is about the cyclical nature of poverty, as well as the historical events, and capitalistic nature of a society that created the circumstances that allow poverty and shocking rent conditions to thrive.
Poverty is a problem in nearly every country; from wealthy, capitalist powers like America and England all the way to developing countries like Nigeria. And yet, Desmond shows readers that those who fight to find shelter, also face dilemmas about how to entertain themselves and provide moments of pleasure. These desires reflect the complexity of human nature.
This collection of essays gives readers a view into global communities and groups not encountered in the day-to-day. For example, Jamison records conversations with a federal prisoner and ultra-marathoner, convicted of mortgage fraud. Or recounts tours of Mexico's most unstable cities—Tijuana, Mexicali, and Calexico—which are fraught with drug-related violence. This grand tour of the diversity and expansiveness of the human experience proves that taking the time to listen and understand the perspectives of neighbors, or countries—seen as a visitor—can uncover shared experiences. We all yearn for creature comforts, and the revolution of technology has only increased our appetite no matter where we live. The prisoner and the citizen can want freedom while at the same time have frustrations about the mundane.
I'll admit it, anything Augusten Burroughs writes is good in my book. Through a series of essays, Burroughs tackles issues from the never-ending loop of dieting to whether or not affirmations are useful. Burroughs' book is a chronicle of the current modern cultural landscape. It depicts a country and a world built upon the ideas that one must always be happy and prosperous. Instead, Burroughs' offers the idea that we (as people) should get okay with being uncomfortable. "Feeling like you cannot stand one more minute doesn't mean you can't. You can, actually." Those of us with relatively few problems have become conditioned to hate being uncomfortable. Stepping into the unknown helps us fully realize the complexity of situations and find deeper personal (or professional) development.
Problems do not exist in isolation. “First world” problems are no longer just for the First World. In an age of globalization and technology, communities are united in their quest for more economic and social stability, as well as personal fulfillment. We travel more and have access to more information than ever before. Our economies are intertwined. We know what we want and what we are missing, which makes for a very complicated relationship with ourselves and the world.
Rachel Henry is a freelance writer and editor based in Chicago. She's a firm believer in having chocolate every day and is an avid reader of just about anything. Find her on LinkedIn.