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The Psychology That Drives Teen Girls to Shoplift

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Shoplifting is common among teen girls. If you are now or were ever a teen girl, you know this. Often, they take trinkets, underwear, charms — little things that are easy to carry, but hard to miss if you're a shop owner. These items usually aren't taken out of need, or at least not a need for the thing itself. So what drives young women to do it? Writer EJ Dickson takes the psychology to task.

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Shoplifting and the Teen Girl
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Story by EJ Dickson. Illustrations by Libby VanderPloeg.

I was 13 when I stole my first pair of underwear. It was a pink rayon polka-dot thong from Victoria’s Secret, the type of candy-floss garment that an adolescent girl might find sexy, but that no adult woman would actually wear. There may or may not have been a bow tie in the back.

"Hey," I told my friend Amanda* while we were in the dressing room. "I’m going to put this on and wear it out of the store." Amanda was sweet-faced and curly-haired, the type of girl people assumed was nice because she smiled a lot and wore pastel-hued J.Crew cardigans.

Like most adolescent friendships, we had our circumscribed roles that we both leaned into. I was the bad girl from the big city who wore smudged eyeliner and carried menthols in my Hot Topic kitten purse; she was the princess from the suburbs who would almost certainly end up majoring in French literature at a liberal arts school.

On that day, however, Amanda didn’t play to her role as the corrupted innocent. Instead, she buttoned down her jeans to reveal a pair of striped bikini briefs. "The trick is to not take the ones with the tags," she said. "That way, they can’t track them when you leave the store."

I was stunned. Clearly, this was not the first time Amanda had shoplifted. Was it possible that she was somehow more advanced in her juvenile delinquent-dom than even I was? Was there some sort of adolescent coming-of-age ritual that I had somehow skipped over up until this point? Was I actually not as bad a girl as people thought I was?

I wasn’t sure, but I knew I had to catch up. So for the next few months, Amanda and I casually stole whatever small, sundry items we could get our hands on — a Bonne Bell root beer flavored chapstick from Claire’s Accessories here, a candy-floss thong or panty with the word "slut" on the back from Hot Topic there. Occasionally, I’d introduce the practice to friends from out of town, by way of offering them a real city experience.

"The trick is not to take the ones with the tags," I’d tell them sagely, as if I were a miniature Danny Ocean with tits. "That way they can’t track them."

If you asked me why I did it, I couldn’t possibly have told you. I didn’t particularly want the items I stole, and I could have easily afforded them. For whatever reason, it just seemed like the right thing for a white, middle-class teenage girl like me to do.

But when (and how) did this become the case? Why do so many girls from what’s colloquially referred to as "comfortable" homes, girls with no history of juvenile delinquency, somehow become sticky-fingered once they reach adolescence? Why did I? I wanted to find out, so I spoke with psychologists, experts, and current teen lifters to get to the bottom of why young women love stealing.

If you asked me why I did it, I couldn’t possibly have told you.

From Pretty Little Liars to very special episodes of Full House, shoplifting as a rite of passage for teenage girls is omnipresent in popular culture. And while statistics show that the most common shoplifters are white middle-class men, according to Rachel Shteir, the author of The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting, throughout history it’s most commonly been associated with young women. That’s been the case since the 19th century, following the rise of chain department stores and kleptomania diagnoses among young women.

"It is a kind of rite of passage, and speaks to the commercialized idea of beauty for young women. The idea that young women need to steal, especially expensive things, to improve their lives, is really wound into our culture," she told Racked.

It’s unclear exactly how many shoplifters are young and female because shoplifting statistics aren’t super reliable, says Barbara Staib, the director of communications for NASP. There’s a huge chasm, she said, between "the percentage of people who actually shoplift versus the percent of people who are reported to the courts or retailers," she told Racked. "Many times, if it’s young people, [security guards will] catch them and they don’t report them to the police."

It’s also fairly common for teenage shoplifters to do it in groups rather than on their own, said Dr. Barbara Greenberg, a clinical psychologist and therapist who often works with teenagers. "You get so much more excited in a group than if you do something alone," she told Racked. "The rush of getting away with something is contagious. It’s sort of like having a little party."

For that reason, many teen shoplifters who don’t get caught the first time will likely do it again. "It's pretty easy to steal, considering most stores don't put alarms on their items and don't check how many items you bring out of the dressing room," Talia*, 19, who has been lifting since she was in elementary school, told Racked.

For the most part, teenage girls are prone to lifting smaller, more compact items, such as lipsticks and eyeshadow palettes from chain drugstores like Target and CVS. This is for both pragmatic and symbolic reasons, said Greenberg.

"Teenage girls are really focused on their appearance and how they compare to other girls," she explained to Racked. "So it makes perfect sense why they’re stealing things that have to do with their identity. They’re also stealing things that are easiest to steal, that are small and easy to hide."

"The rush of getting away with something is contagious. It’s sort of like having a little party."

While some lifters descend to almost Inspector Gadget-levels of thievery, using hooks or magnets to swipe items, some, like Julia*, 19, are more low-brow.

"I typically would stick things in my bra and underwear, as I knew those were safe places where your average store owner wasn't going to try to look," she said.

For this reason, she predominantly lifts small items like makeup, bath bombs, incense, and various other trinkets, usually from stores like Forever 21 or Victoria’s Secret. She also lifts from small local stores, which sets her apart from many other lifters, who frequently express their aversion to stealing from mom-and-pops.

"Those were the easiest to take from," she said. "They usually didn't have cameras and the stores had lots of blind spots, and I was a sucker for cute trinkets and yummy-smelling candles."

One of my friends even told me that when she shoplifted as a teen, she once walked out of Kmart with a bicycle.

"The security guard paused me and said ‘Is that your bike?’ And I said yes," Emily*, 35, said. "When I got out of the store and started to ride it, I realized it still had a card in the front wheel that said ‘Kmart sale’ with the price and everything." She attributes her ability to walk out unscathed in part to her privilege: "I look like a teenager, I’m white, I’m an attractive girl, etc.

I assume it was easier for me to slip through unnoticed."

As depressing as it sounds, there is some truth to Emily’s suggestion that young, white female shoppers are less likely to get caught. Stores like Barneys have been accused of racially profiling people of color, with one lawsuit alleging that the store detained "a disproportionate number of African-American and Latino customers" for alleged shoplifting, even though 2012 FBI statistics show that nearly 70 percent of those arrested for shoplifting are white.

For this reason, many young shoplifters don’t do so out of necessity, said Staib. "It’s typical of teenagers," she said. "They feel entitled to an item, whether they have the money or not." Talia* said that her friends are emblematic of that sense of entitlement. They lift, she said, because "they believe they deserve the item but don't think the price is fair — not because they can't afford it," she said.

That said, there’s a sizeable contingent of shoplifters who will tell you that they do it out of necessity, not out of a desire to have pretty things. In fact, when asked why they lift, many of the young women who haunt Liftblrs (the nickname for Tumblr’s shoplifting community) will echo a social justice-infused rhetoric. "I kind of lift with a Robin Hood philosophy," one lifter told Good magazine earlier this year, expanding on her philosophy in the "about me" section on her Tumblr: "I essentially believe: take from the rich, give to the poor and fuck capitalism."

"[Teenagers] feel entitled to an item, whether they have the money or not."

Older lifters like Shana*, 25, don’t necessarily believe they’re undermining the capitalist structure by shoplifting — instead, they’re doing it for their own survival. "The biggest misconception I'd like to clear up is that ‘all shoplifters do it for the thrill and will take from anywhere/anyone,’" she said. "I have never stolen from a friend or family member, nor will I. I have never lifted from a local shop... I began shoplifting to keep my sanity. I have continued shoplifting as a means of providing for myself and my daughter."

Amanda and I, fortunately, were not in that camp; we were privileged enough (not to mention stupid enough) to get away with our minor transgressions, simply because no one would have suspected two ungainly adolescent white girls of having the balls to commit such an act. Nor did we experience the rush of adrenaline that many lifters report experiencing when they come out of the store. In fact, I don’t recall particularly liking or even wanting any of the dime store items I swiped.

Mostly, what I remember feeling is an utter sense of befuddlement that I had gotten away with stealing in the first place. I spent my adolescence being constantly chastised — by parents, teachers, friends — for committing minor transgressions, while my friends who put on a more innocent front, like Amanda, were spared punishment. Even at 13, I was known as a bad girl, even though I actually didn’t do anything that bad except wear off-the-shoulder sweatshirts and eyeliner and curse a lot.

The fact that I’d gotten away with shoplifting — the one objectively immoral thing I’d ever done in my life — struck me as unspeakably ridiculous. But it was also, in a way, incredibly liberating. I’d spent so much of my adolescence resisting the labels that my parents and teachers had thrust upon me that to avoid wearing the one label that I actually deserved — thief — felt like a tremendous act of subversion.

When I brought this up with Dr. Greenberg, she said it "made a lot of sense" that shoplifting would feel empowering to me, as well as other teenage girls. "There’s this feeling of, ‘Look what we did, what we got away with it, despite the adults around me,’" she said.

Adolescence is a psychically tumultuous time for most young women; more than ever, it’s a time when women are torn between resistance and submission, between embracing the roles that society imposes on them or shaking them off entirely. Not every young woman caught in this struggle resorts to theft, obviously. But I do know this: Even if I didn’t need or want the items I lifted, even if I didn’t feel the rush of adrenaline when I got my paws on that thong or lip gloss, I kept shoplifting — not because I wanted to, but because, in a world that consistently labels young women as good or bad for no reason, as not thin enough or hot enough or rich enough or slutty enough or not slutty enough at all, stealing is the one thing a girl can do to feel some semblance of control.

To get that $13 Physicians Formula powder compact for free might not be an affirmation of power in itself. But in a world that constantly tells young women they can’t do anything right, shoplifting is the one thing that they do simply because they can.

*Names have been changed.

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