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Sociology: Teenagers and Fast Food Consumption

RE-BLOG From: The Resilient Chef

Many times sociologists target minority groups in order to study them. Although this is helpful to examine varied privileges between social classes and minorities, sociology is often ignorant of the middle classes who coincidentally, make up the greatest percentage of our population in North America and Western Europe. Another chapter from Children, Food and Identity in Everyday Life, considers the consumption and identification of fast food by middle class teenagers. By comparing the middle class’ perceptions of fast food to those of the working class’ from a previous study, it becomes increasingly apparent by Wills et al. how western society’s consumption practices have resulted in a further division of social classes through the consumption of fast food.

First of all, everyone wants to fit in! It is undeniable for anyone to state that they are not vying for the approval of someone or something, even in the slightest. Secondly, we are also actively attempting to make an identity for ourselves while trying to fit it with our given social group. These urges—if you will—are strongest during our teenage years, which are also a time when one is not in complete control of the food entering their household. It is therefore up to the teenager to maintain their social reputation through consumption practices outside the home, in this case by purchasing a sandwich or drink with a trendy label. Furthermore, each social class has standards for which to follow (for instance, working classes favour Tim Horton’s, a Canadian-based chain of coffee shops, while middle and upper middle classes will frequent Starbucks). Any deviation from these practices could result in a teenager being cast out from their social group. For example, “[c]onsumption practices, usually involving the purchase and display of commodities or ‘props’, are an important aspect of identity-making work (Warde 1994; Martens et al. 2004), and [c]onsuming or not consuming specific food item or products (brands) can act as a badge (Valentine 1999), marking teenagers as ‘fitting in’ or ‘sticking out’ of one social group or another” (Wills et al. 2009. pp53).

Additionally, these studies also indicated that it was far more important for the working classes to purchase fast food in order to fit it. Middle class teens did not perceive fast food to be as important to fitting in as spending time with their friends. Middle class teens also tended to steer away from institutions like McDonalds in favour of healthier options such as Starbucks at the request of their parents. This indicates that social hierarchy may play a large role in obesity in teenagers and, furthermore, that social identity is constructed with the help of a teenager’s parents and not just by themselves (Wills et al. 2009. Pp64). “A preoccupation with achieving a ‘good diet’ reflects a middle-class disposition for being ‘health conscious’ and for taking on board ‘authentic’ health and dietary messages, that is, those sanctioned by (government) experts. By wishing to avoid fast food teenagers are therefore maintain the distinction of being ‘other’, that is, different from those who more frequently eat in fast food restaurants (i.e., the working classes) (Wills et al. 2009. pp65-66).”


Wills, W., Backett-Milburn, K., Lawton, J., & Roberts, M. (2009). Consuming Fast Food: The perceptions and practices of middle-class young teenagers. In A. James, A. Kjorholt & V. Tingstad (Eds.), Studies in Childhood and Youth: Children, food and identity in everyday life. England: Palgrave Macmillan.