Tuesday, December 31, 2013

#firstworldproblems #whitegirlproblems #rant

This post has been kicking around as a draft for a long time now. In October, I tried to participate in the Fat Mum Slim Photo a day challenge. I can never remember to do one every day but I love instagram and I like getting creative with the prompts. On October 17, the day after the government shut down ended, the prompt was #firstworldproblems. While I sense that some people use #firstworldproblems to shame themselves and reminded themselves that there are bigger problems out there than Starbucks getting their latte order wrong, I don't like #firstworldproblems. Instead of getting mad and not doing the prompt that day I tried to explain what I didn't like about it. So I captioned my photo:
#fmsphotoaday #photoaday #firstworldproblems The government is shutdown so I can't get any work done (my job is funded by a government grant and I need to check in) and the low income people I work with can get help paying their rent or buying food for their children. I can't stand #firstworldproblems. I think it ignores the fact that even in the global south people have "trivial" concerns like trying to choose between different shades of lipstick and that they have phones and computers too. It also minimizes the problems here in America. There are plenty of Americans in poverty who are malnourished and homeless, who don't really have a "first world" standard of living.
The photo I instagrammed that day, me at my desk kicking back.

To break it down, I think #firstworldproblems is problematic for two reasons: 1) it can cause people to ignore the struggles that our fellow countrymen here in the U.S.A. have and 2) it perpetuates stereotypes about people in the third world (I generally prefer the term global south since I get confused by the fact that there apparently is no second world).

As to the first problem: I grew up relatively privileged both my parents are doctors, they are smart people who make a lot of money. Growing up I never had to worry about not having enough healthy food to eat, getting sick and not being able to afford medicine,* or not having money to participate in school events.

In law school and in my first job post law school I worked with low income people with legal problems. Honestly, I was shocked at how many people were homeless, couch surfing, and living in substandard housing like tents or soon to be condemned apartment buildings. My husband teaches in a school district where over half of the families are so poor their children get free breakfast and lunch at school. What do these children do for dinner and what do their families feed them over the summer?

I hear stories about families who cannot afford necessary medical care for their children for example read this story about a man who was sentenced to life in prison because he was selling drugs to pay for his son's bone marrow transplant. The US has the one of the highest rates of child poverty of the "developed" nations. For an in-depth look at the life of one homeless family read the NY Times' really long, really good but depressing story called Invisible Child.

Poverty is the third world is more dire than it is here in the U.S. but people here still suffer and die because they do not have enough money. Families have fundraisers to raise money to pay for necessary medical expenses. Children here may not starve to death but they do not get enough healthy food to eat because unhealthy food is cheaper and more filling. They can focus in school because they are hungry and they have bad health outcomes for the rest of their lives because they lacked proper nutrition growing up.

I have less first hand experience with the second issue. I've travelled outside the United States but I've never really seen day to day life in the third world. But I know that people all over the world have internet access and cell phones. I've read that third world countries are skipping over landline phone technology and just going straight to implementing cell phone technology.

People in third world countries are people and they have mundane problems just like you and me have in the U.S. The author Teju Cole, he's lived in both Nigeria and New York City, tweeted a response to the #firstworldproblmes hash tag where he discussed the fact that though Nigerians have face significant troubles they still still hop aboard the minor problems struggle bus and have complaints similar to those one of my fellow Americans might mark with #firstworldproblem. Mr. Cole's tweets were collected an turned into an essay by the Atlantic here.

For example, I have a #firstworldproblems type problem. Burts Bee's changed the formula for the night cream I use and now I think it's smelly. I paid $17 for a huge jar of something that I think smells horrible. (It doesn't bother my skin so I am going to use it up and then find something that smells better.) If I were living in Nigeria I would still be upset that they changed the formula on the night cream.

#whitegirlproblems are what really get to me though. I can't imagine any problem that white girls have that I don't. Maybe sunburns. But that one is a bit of a stretch since I got a horrible, horrible sunburn all over my chest and shoulders in Bora-Bora. I should have been more diligent about applying sunscreen since the equatorial sun gave my dad a noticeable tan (my Dad is the nerdiest and ended up with an aquasocks tan line). But I can't imagine having to worry about getting a burn like that every summer since the sun here in Maine is too weak for that.

Like your average white girl with problems I too wear Uggs, go to yoga and have my cellphone go off during class, want to wear my yoga pants everywhere and not just to the gym, drink Starbucks, wear leggings as pants, Instagram, and have so many clothes that I cannot choose what to wear. These problems are not unique to white girls, they are problems that all people who have enough money such that they are no longer focused only on survival have.

Both #firstworldproblems and #whitegirlproblems are about minor inconveniences that seem to exist only because the person with the problem has enough money to have the problem. For example: Uggs are ugly but so warm and comfortable; I'm waiting for my manicure to dry so I can't do anything; I'm too lazy to get the charger for my phone and the battery is about to die; my charger broke; it's too hard to think of captions for my instagrams; et cetera.

I propose using #richgirlproblems or #richpeopleproblems and in the alternative since #firstworldproblems aren't limited to people in the first world and #whitegirlsproblems aren't just problems for white girls.

*I did worry that my parents over used antibiotics and weren't treating me properly because they weren't pediatricians.

At least I thought it was my cellphone, really it was just some other land who had the same ring tone as I.

I mean no offense to my readers who use #firstworldproblems and #whitegirlproblems. As I indicated at the beginning  I assume that most people are well meaning and don't want to cause harm to others. I simply wanted to share my thoughts on the hash tags and hopefully get people to think a bit more about the world we live in.


  1. I really appreciate your honest thoughts on that meme. I'm not going to lie and say I haven't used #firstworldproblems before, but I don't anymore because of reflecting on similar experiences working in low-income communities. Sometimes we just have to stop and think a little more about the roots of what we're saying.

    1. Thank you! I've used the meme before too and I'll probably use it ironically again if there's another government shut down. But I won't be using it on a regular basis because I think using it makes me feel ignorant of how others experience the world.

  2. Thanks for the thought-provoking post. Happy New Year, eHa! Here's hoping that all of our problems in 2014 are mundane & petty.

    P.S. Love your Jack Rogers Slims!!!


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