I only felt vindicated, and my disdain for overpriced retail was palpable.
The first thing I ever stole was a thong when I was 16. It was the first one I’d ever worn and once I tried it on in the Target fitting room, I realized how gross it would be to put it back on the hanger. I also reasoned that if I purchased it and didn’t like it, they probably wouldn’t give me a refund for it. So, I slid my granny panties on over them and walked out of the store.
There was no adrenaline rush. I didn’t experience a secret “thrill.” It didn’t feel anything like those countless articles about shoplifting. I just took it. I didn’t realize I’d started what would become a habit for the next several years.
Taking small things became a habit slowly but surely over the next few years. It never felt like a compulsion but more like acquiring things I felt like I was required to own, yet didn’t believe I should have to pay for.
It sounds backward and disgustingly entitled but to me, if society was going to demand that we own certain objects in order to be taken seriously, it’s more than a bit ridiculous to overcharge us for those things.
For example, when a woman isn’t wearing any makeup, she's told she looks “unpolished,” “tired,” or “unprofessional” by the same types of people who say “women don’t need makeup!” The same rules seem to apply to clothing and accessories; nobody takes a woman seriously who is still wearing terrible mainstream trends 20 years too late.
As a cynical teen, instead of just protesting this paradigm by refusing to give money to a society that demanded my paycheck to jump through its hoops, I just stole what I was told I needed. So, for example, when my peers were ignored or dismissed because they had acne, I’d steal concealer or Persa-Gel.
At first, it was just a couple things every few months. The frequency of my heists increased after I moved out of my parents’ home and was thrust into the real world, where we suddenly have to pay for a lot more for things we’re expected to possess.
After a few years getting paid pathetic wages while working at huge corporations, I was filled with frustration and reasoned the best way to make things even was just to steal back what I felt like I was owed. I started with the multimillion dollar lingerie company at which I was getting paid $150 for 30 hours each week and decided I deserved more for my time measuring boobs and pushing strangers into credit accounts.
In the next six months, I smuggled almost $3,000 worth of underwear and sleepwear out of the store, sometimes returning it to other stores for merchandise credit to use on the company’s online clothing site.
The problem with my theft problem was that, throughout the entire thing, I could always justify my kleptomaniac behavior. I made the rule from day one that I would never steal from an individual person (I don’t pick pockets) or small businesses. My M.O. was always small thefts from corporate giants — those I knew were jacking up the prices of their merchandise to take advantage of those of us in the working class.
I never felt guilty; I only felt vindicated, and my disdain for overpriced retail was palpable. I remember when Winona Ryder was busted for shoplifting in 2001, I snorted to a friend, “OK, they’re saying she took $3,000 worth of merchandise from Saks, but isn’t that really like, one Chanel shirt?!” My shoplifting made me feel like I was a vigilante in my silent protest against a materialistic, capitalist regime.
Over time, I found myself stealing from every single place I shopped. For about eleven solid years, I would never pay more than 75 percent of my total haul’s worth at any store — including the supermarket — and I was never, ever caught.
I learned how to make myself friendly to store staff so they’d never suspect anything, and how to pay for a small item while obscuring a much higher-priced item, so I could look bewildered and flash my receipt if the store’s alarms went off when I was exiting.
To be fair, in those years, I didn’t shop often; I was out of work and had a small child to watch, so we didn’t have a lot of money in general. I certainly wasn’t coming home with designer labels or home décor; my inventory really was limited to necessities that I’d acquired with my five-finger discount.
Stealing organic milk to give my kid felt far more justifiable than my lingerie thefts years prior and even more so when I gave my extra stolen food to a local food pantry. I had no plans to ever stop this full-blown lifestyle I found myself almost proud I was leading.
Of course, I was aware that people view shoplifting as wrong, which is why my husband still doesn't know the extent of it. Still, 15 years into my career as a petty theft, I never once felt any guilt or shame about this very illegal habit of mine. In fact, to this day, I still have trouble feeling remorseful for a lot of it given what I know about outsourced labor to underpaid foreign workers and the exponential markups of retailers.
But then, a couple years ago, everything changed. I was at a weekend retreat in which we were discussing the yogic principles of self-care, or the niyamas. When we got to Saucha, the instructor explained, “We cannot expect a better world if we do not start with ourselves. Saucha is the practice of purity in our minds, body, and actions in order to create a more beautiful world.” I nearly broke down in tears.
It was at that moment that I realized my actions weren't just hurting some faceless CEO; it was hurting all of us. I can’t sit around and be mad at the world if I’m just going to put more awfulness into it! It’s kind of like that saying, “You’re not stuck in traffic. You ARE traffic.”
Similarly, it doesn’t make me better than the people who are stealing from me if I just steal from them in return; it makes me a damn hypocrite. And if there's anything I hate more than theft, it's hypocrisy.
This epiphany crashed over me like a wave and right then and there, I stopped taking what I didn’t pay for. Cold turkey. I've never stolen from anywhere since.
Quitting didn’t automatically absolve my anger for our materialistic, commercial culture, but it has brought me more peace in the years since I quit fighting it and began to trust that what I truly need will always be available to me. And now, as an adult, I have the courage to flip the bird at the unnecessary, superficial things society tells me that I need, which really is the trait I should've developed in the first place.