Recently, I was casually chatting with a friend about a traumatic hair experience.
You see, my hairdresser screwed up royally and, long story short, the rescue mission involved another hairdresser cutting off more length than I was initially comfortable with.
My friend’s reaction floored me. Rather than listen to my dramatic tale of spending $500 on my hair in two days and how I was adjusting to life with short hair, she shut me down.
“First world problem” she said. “That’s a first world problem.”
And then she was done. Conversation over. Case closed.
I didn’t even have time to pick my chin up off the table before she had moved on to another topic of conversation.
For the rest of our catch up I sat quietly listening to what she had to say, moving food around my plate and searching for a topic of conversation that would hopefully be deemed acceptable.
As I drove home dissecting our catch up, I became really annoyed. I was annoyed because part of our friendship has always been listening to and supporting one another through our problems – big and small.
I was annoyed because for the rest of our catch up I was too nervous to retell any recent life event through fear of being chastised for it not being serious enough.
Listen: Mamamia Out Loud's Monique once paid $800 for a cut and colour. Ouch. (Post continues after audio.)
As I drove I thought about possible topics of conversation that I could have brought up and I struggled because every topic – housing affordability, eating too many Easter eggs, balancing work and study – are all first world, I am under no illusions about that.
I will happily admit that my tale of hair related trauma is indeed a first world problem but get this, I am fortunate enough that currently my hair related disaster is a big deal for me and I thought that of all the people in this world, a friend, would be able to understand that.
I'm not a fool. I know that in context to the entire world’s problems mine are insignificant, not even a blimp on the radar and that tragic things happen to people every single day. My heart hurts when I hear about the suffering of others and I am in awe of the tenacity of people whose realities are unimaginable and incomprehensible in comparison to my life.
Yet this does not eradicate the fact that my problems are real — albeit small in comparison. And that, unless I am setting up a Go Fund Me page to cover the financial impact of my hair disaster, I have every right to be upset and discuss it with a friend.
Lamenting my own situation with a friend over lunch does not for a second eliminate the pain or suffering of others. Vocalising concerns over my hair or another seemingly trivial issue does not mean I am completely devoid of perspective.
Yet I was made to feel this way.
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Indeed, on the surface a hair disaster appears to be a first world problem – I am fortunate enough to have hair, to be in a financial position where I can afford it get it done professionally – but beneath the surface the result of getting it cut could mean that I have less confidence, which could lead to me avoiding social events…you get the picture. In reality this is not the case for me. I got my hair cut shorter than I wanted, I broke up with my hairdresser, a few weeks on I am actually quite chuffed with the outcome.
However, the situation has drawn attention to how powerful the phrase ‘first world problem’ can be. When used correctly it can highlight the overwhelming prevalence of various inequalities between first and third world countries, pointing out the ridiculous nature of some complaints. Yet when used flippantly about a problem that someone considers worthy and important, it can be damaging.
Sure, if you compare every problem you have to starvation, oppression, terminal illness, physical or emotional abuse it will more than likely appear petty and juvenile. However, the problems of one individual should not be considered irrelevant because the suffering of another is worse.
Problems are all about perspective and sometimes the worst thing that is happening in your life is a dodgy haircut and you need a friend to understand.
So, next time you flippantly whip out the phrase ‘first world problem’, remember that many (not all) of the problems faced by people in first world countries are just that — and despite this, can still be treated with a level of respect.
As for my friend, last week a store was sold out of a dress she wanted for a big event she has coming up. She complained that she had to spend time looking for something else when she is “super stressed right now”- her words, not mine – so everything is OK on that front.