this is not a first world problem

“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.”

(she might be about to say something, not just display her red lipstick. source)

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.

 

“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.

(source)

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.

This piece originally appeared in my Mirror Mirror column on the Frisky

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Unroast: Today I love the way my breasts squish against the top of my belly when I lean over. It’s a new thing, and it happened so fast!

36 Comments »

Kate on April 24th 2013 in beauty, body, feminism

36 Responses to “this is not a first world problem”

  1. Ellie responded on 24 Apr 2013 at 5:48 pm #

    Another great post

  2. Kate responded on 24 Apr 2013 at 5:57 pm #

    @Ellie
    Thank you so much. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and I’m proud of this piece.

  3. Ellie responded on 24 Apr 2013 at 6:11 pm #

    No problem! I completely agree with this. Haha you don’t know how cool it is to be the first to comment on one of your pieces!

  4. Emily responded on 24 Apr 2013 at 6:12 pm #

    Great post! I am also bothered by this meme, and there are other aspects of it that I find troublesome, which aren’t mentioned here. First, it ignores the experience of people who live in so-called “first world” countries like the USA, and also are poor. For these people, although they may be living in a “first world country”, their basic concerns have nothing to do with whether to buy a Lexus or a BMW. Also, the #firstworldproblems meme ignores the fact that there are many middle class/wealthy people in less developed countries who may face dilemmas about fancy cars. The #firstworldproblems meme erases the existence of poverty in developed countries, and wealth in less developed countries.

  5. Ivy Lamb responded on 24 Apr 2013 at 7:05 pm #

    “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.” Yes, yes, yes. We need to keep pointing this out. Thanks for another great post.

  6. olivia responded on 24 Apr 2013 at 7:25 pm #

    totally agree -it’s just another way for people to easily dismiss and gloss over the treatment and perception of women in our society.

    Obviously we have it waaay better than say, some women in Saudi Arabia, but we’re all on a spectrum and the pressures we experience are part of the greater problem of sexism. They’re just more subtle. While we have rights (which I’m not downplaying), we’re still subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, treated as though our value as human beings is primarily tied to our relative youth and beauty. It infuriates me when people, especially men, fail to recognise the subliminal messages present everywhere in society as being very damaging.

  7. Lisa responded on 24 Apr 2013 at 8:40 pm #

    Sometimes the meme gets used in a way that ties in to the idea that money = happiness.

    For instance, cell phone troubles being a first-world problem, like talking to your friends and family is only something you can value if you’re not poor. And in your example, people dismissing others’ feelings of inadequacy or rejection, because they should be happy they’ve got enough to eat – like social acceptance isn’t also a fundamental human desire.

    “Why are you caring what other people think? You should focus on becoming rich!” or “Why are you caring what other people think? You are rich!” – either way, the point is that the material is the only thing that matters.

  8. Erin Lee responded on 24 Apr 2013 at 9:06 pm #

    I agree, I thought the whole ‘first-world-problem’ thing was humorous, and cheeky, and true at first. And then all of a sudden (very quickly) it became this mean, hurtful phrase people can throw at each other when they believe their problems are more serious than your trivial life. We need to start calling people out on that. Particularly about this.

  9. Kate responded on 24 Apr 2013 at 9:37 pm #

    @Emily
    Yes. Thank you for bringing this up. Such a good point.

  10. onebreath responded on 24 Apr 2013 at 9:51 pm #

    Another beautiful post – thank you.

    I am struggling with recovery from anorexia right now. I am off work and I often lie about the reason b/c I have such shame about an eating disorder being the reason I can’t work right now. I can easily tell people about my depression or my diabetes (which interestingly, strike men and women equally), but my anorexia (which primarily, though not exclusively, affects women)? Nope, that’s not a legitimate reason. It’s self created and shows what a weak manipulative self-serving princess I am. (Those are the messages I have internalized).

    As I engage in recovery (and reading more inspirational blogs like yours!), I am becoming increasingly aware of how social issues and societal expectations are so insidious in our lives and that opening them up for discussion can make many people uncomfortable. But just because people would rather pretend there is not a problem doesn’t mean that we should allow important topics to be swept aside. Thank you again.

  11. Ursula responded on 24 Apr 2013 at 10:41 pm #

    I keep wanting to point out that the First World is the capitalist world (the Second World was the USSR and its satellite states). So First World problems are really problems with capitalism. And there are plenty of those!

  12. Rapunzel responded on 25 Apr 2013 at 2:39 pm #

    Yeah, I’m having trouble with this.
    It’s like on the one hand, none of us should care about if we’re fat or gaining weight, etc.. because it’s *so* a “first-world-problem” and therefore it really doesn’t matter. First-world-problems are written off because they’re….priviledged problems?
    But then again, our culture is so focused around the atrocity it is if you’re even at the higher end of the “healthy” category for BMI, never mind the numbers higher than that. You’re loathed and told to fix yourself if you have “extra” weight on your body. But *what* a first-world-problem!
    It’s confusing and kind of hypocritical, assuming the two judgments come from the same people. I’m not really sure what I’m trying to say here, but you probably get my point.

  13. Melanie responded on 25 Apr 2013 at 3:14 pm #

    Ack! I hate that this is being used relative to women’s issues. I always use it when I complain because I’m broke and have to eat chili out of a can instead of local, hormone free chicken or locally raised beef. I have food on my plate and a roof over my head so complaining that I have to eat canned chili is definitely a first world problem to me.

  14. Kate responded on 25 Apr 2013 at 3:32 pm #

    @Melanie
    Honestly, that still sounds like it’s worth some complaining.
    I mean, not that anyone should ever complain about anything, because we should all be so ridiculously thankful all the time…But seriously– I think sometimes we all need to complain, about whatever’s tough in our lives, and maybe it doesn’t matter if someone has it so much worse (there will always be someone who does), it’s still perfectly reasonable and understandable to be frustrated by your own struggles. And not being able to afford healthy food is a serious problem for many, many people.

  15. Michelle Little responded on 25 Apr 2013 at 3:32 pm #

    Right on Kate!! And what a convenient way for women’s issues to get sidelined so as not to inconvenience anyone to look at uncomfortable truths. Ultimately these issues affect everyone, men, women and children.

  16. Kate responded on 25 Apr 2013 at 3:36 pm #

    @Michelle
    They absolutely do. That’s something it’s really important for everyone to remember. Just the words “women’s issues” are a little bit deceptive and dismissive…We’re all involved here!

  17. Mariasole responded on 25 Apr 2013 at 5:04 pm #

    I hate the whole #firstworldproblems thing! although, to be honest, i had never really realised it is used against women more…one more reason to hate it ;) However, i’d like to emphasise again what Emily said above, because for me this is the main problem of this meme, the way it distorts the reality of third world countries as somehow inherently inferior and non-modernised…this is a great (and short) tumblr post about it, written by a lady who lives in Uganda (not sure if she’s Ugandan herself or an expat though): http://uhuh-she-said.tumblr.com/post/33769833761/lets-talk-about-first-world-problems

  18. Kate responded on 25 Apr 2013 at 5:21 pm #

    @Mariasole
    That’s a great piece! I loved the whole thing. Thanks for sharing.

  19. Mariasole responded on 25 Apr 2013 at 5:56 pm #

    @Kate, I’m glad you liked it! And I’m glad you wrote this piece from the sexism angle too :)

  20. schoome responded on 25 Apr 2013 at 9:15 pm #

    Love your stuff but………………….. maybe it’s because I’m a bloke but……….
    no, I’m going to leave it alone…….. I’ve gotten into way too much trouble lately.
    But………… seriously, Twitter? At what point did Twitter become the basis for ANY serious, or not serious, discussion on ANYTHING?!

  21. Kate responded on 25 Apr 2013 at 9:55 pm #

    @schoome
    LOL! It’s far from just Twitter. Although I think it maybe started there? But people use the expression constantly, everywhere I look. But now that you mention this, I’m realizing I should’ve made that clearer in this piece! Oy vey! Oh well….

  22. Erin Lee responded on 25 Apr 2013 at 10:16 pm #

    @Mariasole
    I liked that too!

  23. Marijn responded on 26 Apr 2013 at 5:11 am #

    Such a great piece! I couldn’t agree more

    Only a couple of days ago I realised I am using the phrase “first world problems” increasingly often and started thinking about the context in which I do. It was then that I concluded I do not like it all that much, mostly because of what is pointed out by the woman who wrote the Tumblr article mentioned by Mariasole. It makes the ‘third world’ seem inferior to the first in some way.

    I never considered the things you just wrote down, even though I should have. ‘Cause I use the phrase A LOT in the beauty context and the way women look. Needless to say, I will refrain from it in the future. Thanks!

  24. Shannon responded on 26 Apr 2013 at 1:11 pm #

    I stumbled on to your blog through a series of links from yahoo to facebook to babble to you. Talk about first world experiences…

    I just wanted to say thank you-I am eight weeks post-partum and have been thrilled to read about something more than how to get my body back. Your thoughts about beauty and weight and value have raised some really good questions. Thanks for keeping my perspective in check.

  25. Kate responded on 26 Apr 2013 at 1:16 pm #

    @Shannon
    Thanks for this comment! And congratulations on your baby!!
    I had no idea I was on Babble, and I just googled it, and the piece was really sweet. I appreciate you mentioning it, since I never would’ve known otherwise :-)

  26. Cindy responded on 26 Apr 2013 at 3:40 pm #

    Kate, have you seen this article about the South Korean beauty queens?

    http://jezebel.com/plastic-surgery-means-many-beauty-queens-but-only-one-480929886?

    It seems to me that articles like this show us that self-esteem, body image, and beauty are universally applicable experiences. We may not react the same way or have the same pressures, but beauty can be a tool or a weapon used by or against women. It’s fascinating.

    Also, I love how you have perspective, but still refuse to negate issues as irrelevant or nonsense. I love how you can see the importance in things that are often considered superficial.

  27. Kate responded on 26 Apr 2013 at 3:52 pm #

    @Cindy
    Thanks for sharing this– I hadn’t seen it and it’s sort of like a visual bodyslam. It really drives home the point that yes, there is a distinct standard for “most beautiful.” I think people try really hard to pretend that there isn’t.

  28. Samantha responded on 27 Apr 2013 at 12:09 am #

    So I just found your blog, after reading one of your articles on frisky (which I also just happened upon randomly). I loved this article and it made me want to read more from you. However, can I ask a completely off topic question? Have you named your daughter yet?! :)

    p.s.- In reference to your post about finding out that the baby is a girl – my favorite names are Violet and Lily.

  29. Sugar Bowl: Week of 4/27/13 | Discharmed responded on 27 Apr 2013 at 9:07 am #

    [...] her blog this week, Kate Fridkis argues that women’s issues are not first-world problems. Her insights perfectly articulate my frustration whenever others try to shoot down my feminist [...]

  30. Friday Five-ish | to be dancing... a novelty yarn responded on 03 May 2013 at 10:16 am #

  31. Anna responded on 05 May 2013 at 4:45 am #

    “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.”
    Yes, yes yes. Thank you for this post. You have endless brilliant things swirling around in your head.

  32. Eat the Damn Cake » the epic tale of how I stopped using shampoo responded on 06 May 2013 at 9:15 am #

    [...] that I am intensely aware of the fact that I recently wrote a piece critiquing the phrase “first world problems” and that this whole piece might fit into that phrase very [...]

  33. Melinda responded on 23 May 2013 at 2:42 pm #

    All of you ladies made excellent points and I love that you posted this, Kate…damn, it’s like you’re in my mind sometimes! Scary.

    Anywho, count me in as another person who hates the #firstworldproblems meme with a passion. I’ve had doctors/therapists do this to me, as well as my husband. It’s like, yes…I have enough food to eat (on most days), I don’t have to wear a veil outside, and I’m not homeless. I’m thankful for the few blessings in my life. I’m thankful for the love and beauty that I can still find in the world. I know it could be much worse. I’m sure that somebody, somewhere would wish they could switch places with me. I know it is a luxury to have running water and Internet.

    BUT that doesn’t take away the very real pain of living with depression and suicidal thoughts. It doesn’t take away my reality of being a Black woman (mixed and very light-skinned, but still) in a society where I deal with both sexism AND racism on a daily basis. I try to be sensitive to the feelings of others and not dismiss their problems. So that is why it frustrates me intensely to run into this attitude that no one in the so-called “First World” should ever be upset about anything or talk about it, because then we’ll be labeled whiners. Some people want to play this game of “my problems are bigger than your problems”. They think they’re offering perspective but they’re just being insensitive.

    As to body image, I’ve tried to have a few conversations with people in real life about this, only to be shut down. I think body image is something that affects women worldwide. Maybe in different ways, but it still does, because beauty is viewed as important in nearly all cultures. My mother is from a so-called “Third World Country” and despite all the problems there, women care VERY much about beauty and body image.

  34. Melinda responded on 23 May 2013 at 3:01 pm #

    BTW, I want to share something, if you don’t mind. I remember the early days of my relationship with my husband, when we were still just dating. One night we were having a somewhat deep conversation and the subject of my hair came up. I couldn’t help it, but I started crying. He told me I was being “shallow”.

    Now some of you might read this and think it sounds petty, but he is a white male. I am of mixed heritage (black/white), very light-skinned, but with thick curly hair that became decidedly more Afro-textured when I hit puberty. I’ve been relaxing my hair since the age of 11. I tried to help him see that I wasn’t just some silly woman being vain about her hair when there are more important issues in the world…my hair, as a woman of color, is definitely related to how I am viewed and how I am treated by others. I’ve been called the N-word, been told I am ugly, and I’ve been denied jobs because of my hair. So it might be a “First World problem” to some, but it is a painful reality in MY world.

    I knew he didn’t fully understand, because people don’t always understand experiences they haven’t had themselves. But it is just one example of trying to explain beauty and body image from my perspective, and then having my feelings dismissed. It is something that runs deep. I also remember when I used to be thin and feeling like I had no right to complain about myself because my much larger cousin would ridicule me. She didn’t seem to realize that being skinny didn’t equal happiness and confidence and self-worth. And in some cases, I felt that she would have taken it personally, like, “if YOU think you’re fat, what do you think of ME?”

  35. Joyce responded on 07 Jun 2013 at 5:29 am #

    I’d disagree with Emily up top. First world doesn’t necessarily mean first world countries but rather the world you’re in and experiencing. Speaking of memes, your blog is a great read. It’s the kind of place I can read the comments too and think
    Faith in humanity: restored

  36. You think you have problems? | A Zimbabwean girl against the world responded on 13 Sep 2013 at 7:18 am #

    [...] list of mildly amusing little complaints about an easy, well-fed, upper-middle class life.” (http://www.eatthedamncake.com/2013/04/24/this-is-not-a-first-world-problem/)“Problems from living in a wealthy, industrialized nation that third worlders would probably [...]