I have a first world problem, and it’s this:
Every time I see the phrase “first world problem“, I want to punch the person who wrote it in the face.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the way this phrase is used online, allow me to explain. The tag #firstworldproblems is typically employed by people grumbling about something trivial or mundane, or a problem that only affects the priviliged or the wealthy. For example: “My cleaner keeps rearranging my cupboards and now I can’t find my gluten-free biscuits! #firstworldproblem”. Or: “Can’t decide between the princess-cut solitaire and the emerald-cut with shoulder baguettes! #firstworldproblem”. Or: “My private helicopter was diverted because of snow and now I have to *drive* all the way to my exclusive Swiss alpine bolthole!” #firstworldproblem”.
It’s intended to act like a knowing wink, a sympathetic tilt of the head; an acknowledgement of the ridiculousness or pomposity of whatever minor drama is being bemoaned. It’s basically the social media of equivalent of your mum forcing you to eat broccoli because “There are starving children in Africa, you know!” (the inevitable response being, “Why don’t you send it to them, then!”. Ah, the joys of childhood.)
The people who regularly use this phrase seem to be labouring under the misguided impression that by tacking #firstworldproblem onto the end of every sentence, the reader will graciously overlook its whiney, spoiled content and instead be impressed by how self-aware they are, how appreciative of their privileged position, how right on. If we are also mildly amused, so much the better.
Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy a self-indulgent whine as much as the next girl. Sometimes the minor irritations of daily life build up, and the only way to let off steam is to vent about it, even when you know, deep down, that you’re being childish. Wedding planning can make you a repeat offender. Mother-in-law interfering with the seating plan? Can’t find ribbon to match the bridesmaids’ dresses? Fine. Vent. But have the balls to own it. Adding a patronising hashtag doesn’t mean a person can whine with impunity. It doesn’t make it cute or clever. All it says is, “I thought about my situation, then I thought about how much worse some people have it in developing countries, and I still decided to have a gripe about it.” Not cool, people. Not cool.
And it’s not as if the first world is entirely without its problems. Choosing between putting food on the table and shoes on your child’s feet? This, sadly, is a first world problem facing women within half a mile of my house. Choosing between staying home with your newborn baby, unpaid and unprotected, or going to work and leaving them in overpriced daycare? Hello, America! This is what a first world problem looks like! Having to buy supermarket emmental because the farmer’s market ran out of that award-winning organic gruyère? That’s not a first world problem. That’s a bourgeois middle-class douchebag problem. (Maybe every time someone uses #firstworldproblem, I should suggest, helpfully, ”I think you meant #bourgeoismiddleclassdouchebagproblem”? Who knows, it might catch on.)
Here’s another real first world problem for you: according to Oxfam, of the 1.3 billion people living in poverty around the world, more than two-thirds of them are women and girls. And here’s another: two-thirds of all children denied school worldwide are girls. And another: every minute, a woman with no medical care dies in pregnancy or childbirth. These things might not be happening in your city, or in your country, or even on your continent, but they are happening in our world, and they are no less our problem just because they are taking place somewhere else.
The other day, there was a bit of a kerfuffle over on a hugely popular design blog. The blogger, Grace, wrote a post about choosing which colour of $30 dollar nail varnish to buy. A #bourgeoismiddleclassdouchebagproblem if ever there was one. But the discussion it sparked was completely unexpected, covering the way in which female entrepreneurs are judged and criticised by other women, the tendency of women to downplay their financial success, the ethics of mass-production and global consumption, and, yes, which colour of nail varnish was prettiest (for the record, I’m digging the turquoise).
Of course, it was only a matter of time before someone felt compelled to throw in a “first world problems” dig. Grace’s response and follow-up were interesting: in essence, she argued that discrimination against women in terms of pay and opportunities is a worldwide issue. By insisting upon respect and equal treatment in our own daily lives, we have a knock-on effect for women and girls throughout the wider world. And perhaps she’s right. Perhaps equality, like charity, really does begin at home.
I think this, deep down, is my real issue with #firstworldproblems. It is not that it is glib and obnoxious (although it is). It is the division, however light-hearted, of the world into Them and Us. We have our silly problems, they have their big bad problems, and never shall anyone in the first world experience tragedy, or anyone in the third world stub their toe.
Of course we in the developed world are privileged, of course we are lucky. It goes without saying, so stop saying it like it’s no big deal. Our injustices might be small, in comparison with the crimes perpetrated against women around the world every day. But if inequality exists anywhere in the world, then it affects all of us. If one woman is beaten, we all bear the scars. If one woman is discreetly groped in a plush boardroom, we are all violated. If one woman is denied control over her own body and her own future, we are all powerless.
If one women cannot find the perfect shade of coral nail varnish, we all get a bad manicure.
Okay, maybe not the last one.
I’m not asking you to drop everything and run off to a Third World country (though we are lucky to have the option to do that, if we so choose). Nor am I asking you to give money to this cause or that cause (again, lucky). I’m not even asking you to stop moaning, because it would make me a big fat hypocrite. I live in a beautiful city in a democratic country and spend my spare time writing about whether friendship bracelets are still cool and why people aren’t leaving more comments on my blog. I could probably add #bourgeoismiddleclassdouchebagproblem to 99% of everything I say.
I suppose I’m just asking you – asking all of us - to be mindful in our choices. Choice of words, choice of lifestyle, choice of how we spend our money. Let’s not be flippant about inequality. Let’s take pride in how far we have all come, but recognise that before one woman can truly be considered equal, we must all be equal.
It’s not Third World Women’s Day. It’s not First World Women’s Day. It’s International Women’s Day. And it’s brilliant.
(Beautiful portraits by Lauren McGlynn Wedding Photography)