They’re pro-Sanders, anti-capitalist teenage thieves
Barbie’s first lift was a small, plastic stingray she stole from the dollar store. The toy was the last of its kind on the shelf, and she thought it looked lonely sitting there by itself. She picked it up and concealed it between her phone and her hand. A few minutes later, she walked out the door, undetected by store employees. She didn’t feel a rush, wasn’t even really worried about being caught. How much trouble could she be in for stealing a $1 toy? She was a 15-year-old girl.
Barbie (not her real name) didn’t even want the toy. “I was just aiming for the title,” she says. She wanted to be a lifter. In the summer of 2015, Barbie and her longtime friend, who goes by the handle Unicorn-Lift, had just discovered Liftblr. Liftblr, Tumblr’s notorious shoplifting community, is an ever-changing group of mostly young female bloggers who trade tips, write about criminal exploits, and post images of stolen merchandise known as “hauls.” Unicorn-Lift actually discovered the community through an anti-lifting post, written by someone enraged by the existence of the “shoplifting fandom.” She showed Barbie, and the pair found themselves drawn into the Liftblr world. They wanted to be part of it and earn a “lift” title. The only way to do that was to steal something. Unicorn-Lift, also 15 years old, hit the local Wal-Mart. Barbie found herself at the Dollar Tree.
When they got home, Barbie and Unicorn-Lift logged onto Tumblr. Barbie created a new username, Stingray-Lift, and published her debut post: “I had to make an account after my friend @unicorn-lift and I had a first lift lmao.”
A username like Stingray-Lift, inspired by the target of Barbie’s first heist, allowed other shoplifters on Tumblr to recognize her as one of their own. Most usernames make fairly obvious references to stealing—names like Liftswift, Babyklepto, Stealthethings, Rosie-the-Lifter. The lifters congregate in the Tumblr hashtags, aggregating posts under #myhauls or #liftblr, and crowdsource heavily notated guides to shoplifting. They reblog instructions on how to safely remove security tags and share intel on the various loss prevention policies of department stores and mall shops. They carefully itemize their purloined merchandise.
One of Barbie’s recent hauls—a “quick” one, she wrote—included four perfume bottles from Victoria’s Secret and a Michael Kors purse from a Dillard’s department store. She estimated the value to be $510. She keeps a running tally, proudly displaying the values of stolen items at the top of her blog: “$6,077saved since ’15,” her profile boasts. She also says she’s “boosted” $435, money made by selling stolen goods. Unicorn-Lift has a similar counter set to $4,863 for lifted merchandise and $585 for boosts. Both girls have the tagline “How Bad Can I Be?” emblazoned across the top of their profiles, a reference to a song in the movie adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax. “It’s our jam,” says Barbie. It’s on their “lifting playlist,” which includes Panic! At the Disco’s “Emperor’s New Clothes” (I see what’s mine and take it / finders keepers, losers weepers) and Set It Off’s “Partners In Crime” (We’ll live like spoiled royalty). “We get home, empty out our haul on the floor, and blast our lifting playlist while adding up the prices,” says Barbie.
The girls pile dozens of Kat Von D lipsticks, Urban Decay eyeshadow palettes, and Anastasia Beverly Hills contour kits on their beds and floors, arrange them in neat configurations, and take meticulous photos to document their spoils and share with their followers. Their regular targets are exclusively the largest corporate retail chains: Sephora, Macy’s, LUSH, Forever 21, and Claire’s are favorites, but Victoria’s Secret and Ulta appear the most frequently in their hauls. “While lifting, personal loss needs to be at a minimum,” says Unicorn-Lift. “This means I only lift from stores that are multi-million dollar companies. I would never steal from a person or a small local store.” Barbie and Unicorn-Lift abide by a prevailing rule in this Tumblr community, one of many informal commandments shared among the bloggers: Thou shalt not rip off mom-and-pop shops.
Many of the lifters argue that what they do undermines a capitalist system that victimizes workers and exploits consumers. “I kind of lift with a Robin Hood philosophy,” Barbie says. Sometimes she gives the things she lifts to family and friends. Sometimes she keeps them for herself. “I essentially believe: take from the rich, give to the poor and fuck capitalism,” she writes in an “about me” section on her blog. “I’m a democratic socialist and think capitalism is a plague to America.” And then, an addendum: “yes I still am a greedy materialistic person. But it’s okay because I’m self aware!”
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Barbie and Unicorn-Lift abide by a prevailing rule in the lifting community, one of many informal commandments shared among the bloggers: Thou shalt not rip off mom-and-pop shops.[/quote]
Posts from the lifting community appear as far back as 2012, but it’s difficult to chart its history—Liftblr is a digital graveyard of deactivated accounts and dead links. In November 2013, members of a now-defunct blog called Lifttimes wrote that they were impatiently waiting for “the shoplifting community to grow.” Babyklepto reblogged the post, suggesting that “we need to be like jehovah’s witnesses and just convert people.”
They didn’t have to wait very long. By February 2014, the shoplifting posts were multiplying—and entering the consciousness of Tumblr’s mainstream users, many of whom had moral objections to lifting and expressed so in the message boxes of lifting users. “It’s not ‘cool’. It’s not ‘giving it to the man’. It’s not a great way to get things you don’t have. It’s wrong,” one anonymous user wrote to Lifterslife.
“I lift because I’m poor,” Lifterslife responded. “I’m at that age where I feel bad when I ask my parents for money that they can’t really spare. ‘But why don’t you just go without?’ you ask. Because in today’s society dressing like you’re poor and a bum will get you nowhere.” Members of Liftblr feel empowered by a sense of social justice. They reblog Bernie Sanders memes and post anti-racist screeds. When one anonymous user threatens them with “karma,” they turn the thread into a conversation on the cultural appropriation of non-Western concepts. Feminist rhetoric infuses their language. And they’re extremely anti-corporatist. “Shoplifting can be an act of civil disobedience,” writes one user. “If you do get caught, tell them: This is not petty theft. This is non-violent resistance to a violent and oppressive economic system in which we are trapped.”
Britney Summit-Gil, a Ph.D. candidate and researcher of digital media, gender representation, and consumer identities at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, says the lifting community is participating, knowingly or unknowingly, in a historical practice of theft as activism. “Shoplifting, whether you mean it to be or not, is an anti-capitalist action,” says Summit-Gil. “You’re undermining one of the basic tenets of capitalist ideology, which is that it’s a mortal sin to steal or to get anything you didn’t work for.” This idea infiltrates the earliest anarchist doctrines, which called it “individual reclamation”—resistance to what activists of the time saw as a violent capitalist ideology. Late 19th-century French anarchists implemented individual reclamation against the Parisian elite, squatting in their homes and setting fire to their belongings. More recently, in 2000, a group of Spanish anarchists formed Yomango, which means “I steal” in Spanish slang, and billed it as an anti-consumerist movement.
It’s unclear whether Tumblr’s lifters are apprised of this history, or whether their anti-capitalist, anti-corporatist logic manifested as a justication for shoplifting after the fact. In any case, many law-abiding Tumblr users don’t buy this line of reasoning, which has created tension between the two camps. These conflicts have played out in the #liftblr tag, which is contested territory between the shoplifting community and the fitness community. “I think the shoplifting community needs to take over the ‘lifting’ tag and show meatheads who’s boss,” Tumblr user HowAboutFree (now deactivated) wrote in 2013. A recent weightlifting meme urges users to “Remember Who the Real Lifters Are” and depicts a man raising a barbell at the gym. “Don’t let thieves take our words,” the post reads. “THEY DON’T EVEN REALLY LIFT BRO. THEY STEAL SHIT. THAT SHIT AIN’T EVEN HEAVY.”
The hostilities toward Tumblr’s shoplifters came to a head last spring. A user named We-Unhallowed created a list of dozens of lifting blogs. “For your hate-scrolling pleasure: Tumblr’s Bling Ring,” she wrote in a post that has since been deleted. The title was a reference to a band of teenage thieves who gained notoriety after being convicted for burglarizing the homes of celebrities like Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan. “I’ve heard our and their generations called ‘entitled’ but it’s articulated really well here when you read their text posts about how they steal because they ‘deserve nice things,’” complained We-Unhallowed.
It was when news outlets started picking up the story that the community began imploding. Major media outlets published stories on the “doxxing,” a term used to describe outing an anonymous person on the internet. The BBC ran a broadcast calling the lifters “disturbing” and characterizing them as unrepentant teen girls who steal “because they can.” One site glibly referred to them as “wannabe Winonas.” Their taboo practices were compared to Tumblr’s pro-anorexia community. Like the original Bling Ring—immortalized in the 2013 Sofia Coppola film of the same name—Tumblr’s lifters captivated outsiders not just because they were criminals but because they were, purportedly, teenage girl criminals. The effeminate nature of their crimes—the stolen lipsticks and bras, purses and panties—as well as the exhibition of their criminality online lent a glamour to what they did.
Some of the lifters basked in the attention. “I’m famous. for free,” bragged NewLifterr. For others, the spotlight was too harsh. “I have like 20 messages to respond to right now but I’m going to delete this blog soon and I don’t want to be fucking associated as a ‘lifter’ anymore because people keep attacking me,” wrote L-Lifterlove after We-Unhallowed’s post went viral. She deactivated. Others followed. One by one, the lifting blogs went dark.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]The effeminate nature of their crimes—the stolen lipsticks and bras, purses and panties—as well as the exhibition of their criminality online lent a glamour to what they did.[/quote]
If Tumblr’s shoplifting fandom has a kindred ancestor, it’s Mary Ramsbotham, the highly respected wife of a rich obstetrician in mid-1800s England. One day in March 1855, the 50-year-old woman walked into the drapery shop of one John Moule. She was in the market for lining fabric, which she picked out and purchased from Moule himself. She was also in the market for some handkerchiefs, which she surreptitiously slipped into her dress pockets without partaking in the traditional commercial transaction of money for product. She then walked out of the store.
This was not the first time Ramsbotham had taken from this shop. An assistant who had previously observed her stealing sleeves was watching with a sharp eye. He called the police. Later, Ramsbotham’s lawyer would attack Moule in court. “When the affair of the sleeves took place he should have warned Dr. Ramsbotham. Did he not know that many ladies had had a mania of this kind?”
The mania to which the lawyer was referring was kleptomania, a condition which had only been given a name a few decades prior. It was in 1816 that Swiss physician André Matthey identified and defined “klopemanie,” describing it as an impulse to steal things one didn’t need. Researchers who built on his work characterized it as a form of moral insanity, and many of them believed it was a condition that only affected women. For this reason, there were attempts to link its apparent prevalence among women to their biological nature. By the time Ramsbotham appeared in court, tried for theft, her legal defense was able to successfully argue that she was suffering from a bout of menopause-induced kleptomania.
Ramsbotham symbolized an emerging anxiety among the middle class in England and France over female deviance exemplifed by thievery. Images of this archetypal woman began to proliferate shortly after the establishment of the first department stores in early 19th-century London. In a 1989 journal article titled “The Invention of Kleptomania,” Elaine Abelson, an assistant professor of history at The New School for Social Research, writes that women in the 19th century experienced a freedom of mobility within department stores that they had not experienced elsewhere in the public sphere. Shopping was women’s work; therefore, the majority of shoplifters were women. And not just any women—middle- and upper-class women who stuffed silk ribbons and gloves into their pockets without paying for them. These were respectable women, and to label them criminals would undo a social order the elite establishment held precious to its survival. So they were labeled “sick” instead.
The female kleptomaniac became a cultural obsession. The archetype appears repeatedly in literature and film of the period, including Émile Zola’s 1883 novel The Ladies’ Paradise and Edwin Porter’s 1904 silent film The Kleptomaniac. It also became a fixation for the medical establishment, which pathologized the behavior of female shoplifters, attributing it to their gender identity. In 1911, Austrian psychologist Wilhelm Stekel published “The Sexual Root of Kleptomania,” arguing that the disorder was the result of “ungratified sexual instinct.” The paper cites, among other instances, the case of a 26-year-old woman who stole pencils from a shop. “She was an incapable sort of person of wandering and inattentive mind,” Stekel writes. “The excuse she gave was that her father kept her too strictly. This girl was also symbolically in search of a phallus (pencil).”
Psychologists and physicians at the time misunderstood why women shoplifted because they misunderstood women’s experiences, according to historian Tammy Whitlock. In an article published in a 1999 edition of Albion, Whitlock conveys the details of the Ramsbotham case and explains that survival in class-obsessed societies necessitated the acquisition of social symbols like ribbons and gloves. “Such ‘fripperies’ had real significance in day-to-day life in maintaining or increasing status,” she writes. “Indirectly these women were stealing status.”
Society’s fascination with female shoplifters endures. Most of us still remember the surveillance footage of Winona Ryder trawling through the racks of Saks Fifth Avenue, struggling to carry the weight of stolen clothes in her arms. “Why did she do it?” asked a Time magazine headline. “Women tend to steal for pleasure more than men,” the article reads, “but that gender disparity might reflect a reporting bias: women are more likely to be perceived as unbalanced.”
Consider one of 2016’s biggest internet memes: Joanne the Scammer, a character created and performed by 25-year-old Branden Miller. In a video that has more than 28,000 likes on Instagram, the character looks into the camera and confesses to being a “scammer, a liar, a real messy bitch.” With a flip of a blond wig, Miller coos, “I love robbery and fraud.” Joanne the Scammer has become a mascot for the lifter community. In one post, Joanne holds up a tube of beauty cream. “Retail cost?” she asks. “Couldn’t tell ya.” The lifting bloggers have shared this photoset among themselves hundreds of times.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]‘Such ‘fripperies’ had real significance in day-to-day life in maintaining or increasing status. Indirectly these women were stealing status.’[/quote]
PrincessKlepto was 12 years old when she first lifted a pair of earrings from Claire’s with her best friend roughly three years ago. “I felt so badass,” she says. She couldn’t wait to do it again. She and her lifting partner tore through the store aisles, collecting candles and lotions, jewelry and makeup. “Being a teen girl is hard—you have to be skinny, attractive, put together, well dressed, etc. Society teaches girls through media and the beauty industry that they need to be perfect,” PrincessKlepto says.
“I’m sick of handing my money over to corporations that profit on this bullshit ... so if i have to put up with this kind of stuff, i’m certainly not going to pay for it.” She says she’d rather save her money for things she can’t lift, like a college education.
It was around mid-2015, almost a year after the We-Unhallowed dox, that the lifting blogs began to reappear. Liftlongandpr0sper. TheGlamLifter. TheLiftingQueens. At the top of their blogs, many lifters put a disclaimer: RP, for role-play. “This blog is just pretend,” they write, in an effort to preempt legal prosecution. Some, resentful of being portrayed as spoiled white, middle-class teen girls, now included their non-white or queer identities and class status in their bios. Some, like LiftingPOC (POC stands for “person of color”) or BrokeLifter, incorporated the distinction into their usernames. The only members who agreed to be interviewed for this article, however, are white—a fact they use to their full advantage. “We’re the least suspicious,” says Barbie. “I ... even notice the mall guards pass right by me and my purse and shopping bags full of stolen goods [because] I’m white ... to follow a group of African American teenage males in jerseys [and] Jordans.”
PrincessKlepto is part of this second wave of lifting bloggers. Her inaugural haul photo included items from Ulta and Claire’s, including several bottles of nail polish and six earring sets. She valued the haul at $241. Her latest haul, which includes RumChata from World Market and a polka dot bikini set from Kate Spade, is valued at $576. “A lot of lifters, myself included, end up liking liftblr better than their main blogs because everyone is always interacting so naturally,” says PrincessKlepto, who currently has around 1,850 followers on her blog. “It’s really about sharing experiences and helping fellow lifters.”
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]If makeup and clothes embody status out in the real world, on Tumblr it’s the illicit acquisition of these things that breeds popularity. Risk is social currency.[/quote]
This sense of community is strong among Tumblr lifters. “Maybe the real haul was the friends we made along the way,” writes Prettycitylifterdrifter in a March post. It was only here, on the internet, that they could find each other, share information, and form a collective around a practice largely viewed as immoral by the rest of society. This kind of fellowship is what makes something like Liftblr so appealing to young teens, especially those who feel alienated or isolated from mainstream society.
“If you’re a shoplifter, it’s a big part of your life,” says researcher Summit-Gil. “You’re going to go online and try to find somebody else who shares that interest and who sees you not as this depraved, immoral person but as a comrade-in-arms.”
More so than Facebook and Twitter, Tumblr is particularly conducive to this kind of community building. Not only does it allow for anonymity, but the barrier to entry is low. Just a few keywords, a hashtag search, and you’ll find what you’re looking for. Despite attempts at discretion, Liftblr is easy to discover and explore.
All anyone has to do to become a part of it is post about lifting.
“It’s just nice to have people to share this part of my life with,” says a user who goes by Alice (not her real name). “I get to show off what I’ve accomplished and learn new tricks.” Alice, who says she is over 18 and much more cautious than her teenage peers, lifts out of need. Most of her hauls are just food, she says. She only posts “the pretty stuff,” and says “some of us boost our goods to pay the rent and utilities.” Some users, however, fit the popular profile. A lifter who wanted to be identified as M.P. says she lifts because she considers it a victimless crime. “When I walk out of a store with $500 worth of shit that I would NEVER pay $500 for, I’m like ‘yeah fuck the man,’ but I don’t think I’m helping to accomplish anything greater than my own personal satisfaction,” she says.
If makeup and clothes embody status out in the real world, on Tumblr it’s the illicit acquisition of these things that breeds popularity. Risk is social currency. Bigger hauls get shared and liked at higher rates. Members who almost get caught write long blog posts about their experiences and arouse sympathy from fellow lifters. They are, for the most part, not afraid of being caught. Why would they be? They are (allegedly) teen girls. No one is looking for them. No one is chasing after them—not even Tumblr. “Posts depicting potentially illegal activity may not, in and of themselves, violate our policies,” a Tumblr spokesperson wrote in an email. Lifters can slip by a security guard carrying a bag stuffed full of Michael Kors coin purses and Bed Bath & Beyond candles. They don’t look like criminals. But they are.
If they ever sense danger, or want to opt out, they can just disappear. Members vanish every week. New accounts take their place. This is an ephemeral community. But its central purpose never changes. The individual players don’t matter as much as the collective itself. So they delete their accounts when they have to. A few days after denying an interview request, LiftingPOC’s account was deactivated. The URL now leads to a 404 page. It reads: “There’s nothing here.”