Sociology: Teenagers and Fast Food Consumption

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 and deviations 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 in favour of healthier options 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.


4 thoughts on “Sociology: Teenagers and Fast Food Consumption

  1. Interesting. But there are a few wide brush strokes being painted here, and a lot of conjecture. first, Tim Hortons and Starbucks are not the Canadian division points for the middle and lower classes. Many middle class families love Tim Hortons for their small cup sizes, hot chocolate and cheep prices, as well as their drive-through and the glory that is triple-triple! Hockey mom’s for example the stereotype of the middle class Canadian woman can often be found holding the extra -large Tim’s coffee and bits at a game. If you live outside of Toronto, like most of the middle class families in Ontario, you’re first job as a teen, could be at either Tim Horton’s or Starbucks, for no other reason than they’er hiring or the location. And defiantly not because you fit into one class or another! Second point, though most teens experiment socially with junk food, being their prerogative. The only determinator of future behaviour is past behaviour. If you grew up eating junk you will probably continue to do so. And if you didn’t you probably wont! I disagree with the assumption that all lower class families eat more junk food, some do, but a lot don’t, if you are close to your cultural background you may eat a great diet of cultural dishes packed full of nutrients, and still grab a McMuffin every once and a while..

  2. I think there needs to be a distinction here between urban teen and suburban teen’s consumption habits and what is considered cool after school.. Also if your parents are healthy eaters, the rebellion may lie in the eating of junk food with your peers.

  3. The comparison of Starbucks to Tim Horton’s is completely irrelevant; they are used to illustrate the stark difference in the prices of coffee at different franchises. This is also applicable to privately-owned cafes where prices will differ from McDonalds’ or Tim Hortons’ coffee by a few or more dollars. I think that it is most important to recognize which neighbourhoods Starbucks’ (or cafes) are located in, which neighbourhoods Tim Hortons’ are located in, which neighbourhoods both are located in, and which neighbourhoods contain neither. This, I think, – regardless of urban/ rural setting – could be the best indication of which income bracket a neighbourhood falls under, where you are most likely going to find your first job, and what your peers are going to consider ‘trendy.’ This is not to say that I agree with this oppression. The point is that, given the choice (which they are) middle class teens may choose to hang out at ‘Starbucks’ with their friends because it is perceived in society to have healthier food; healthy food, which has been gaining popularity since the 1980’s, and is advocated by their parents to be ‘better’. This is especially true if the establishment is deemed as popular by their peers. ‘Trendy’ food cost more, and is often used as a prop to symbolize ones location on the social ladder. It was not meant to offend those who choose to drink/ eat Tim Horton’s, it was just used as an example.

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