By Jennifer Kirby
It was just one chemistry test. But when it came back with a bad grade, capping off an already stressful day, Caitlin Boyle escaped to the bathroom so her classmates wouldn’t see her cry.
At 24, she was back in school, balancing an unsatisfying full-time job in urban planning with community college classes in preparation for a doctorate program in physical therapy. She felt overwhelmed by the 70 hours a week she spent working and studying, and chemistry in particular made her feel “so stupid,” she says.
As she stood in front of the bathroom mirror berating herself, she had a revelation. “I was like, stop. What are you doing? This isn’t helping; this is making the situation so much harder,” she recalls.
On a whim, Caitlin wrote “You are beautiful” on a Post-it note, stuck it to the mirror and took a picture of it. “I started to think, Who’s going to find this? What are they thinking when they look at this note?” she says. She went home and wrote about what she’d done on her personal blog. This was in July 2009.
In a matter of days her spontaneous act of affirmation was gaining the force of a full-fledged movement, with word spreading first through the Internet and then with the help of national media. In locker rooms, in grocery stores, on strangers’ car windshields across America, thousands of women were planting motivational Post-it notes for others to discover.
By August an agent had contacted Caitlin about writing a book, and by September she had a deal. Clearly, Operation Beautiful had struck a nerve.
Its aim is simple, though not easy: to help women realize “how truly toxic negative self-talk is” – and to end it.
“People sometimes think [the notes are] just for strangers, but the sneaky thing about Operation Beautiful is you’re really writing the notes to yourself,” Caitlin says. “It’s easy for most women to say nice things about other people but so hard to say it about ourselves. This lets people be kind to themselves.”
Which is important, she believes, because a positive outlook is crucial to a healthy lifestyle. “When you engage in unhealthy behaviors you treat yourself badly in other areas too. It kind of carries over.”
She speaks from personal experience. Partying “way too much” in college – she graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 2006 – left her burned out and worn down. “I had bad self-esteem and I would ‘fat talk’ about how much I hated my body and then go out and drink six beers,” she says. “It was a vicious cycle of not being healthy mentally or physically.”
A turning point came when a friend called Caitlin out on her negativism and then invited her to go for a run. “After like a quarter-mile I collapsed on the sidewalk. Obviously, running was so much harder than I thought it would be, but I liked that it was hard, and that was weird for me. ... I started running and cleaned up the rest of my habits significantly,” says Caitlin. She’s since completed about 40 races, including two marathons, a century ride and a half-dozen triathlons.
In the early days of Operation Beautiful, someone suggested that participants include “www.operationbeautiful.com” at the bottom of the notes they wrote. “That was really cool because then we started hearing from people,” Caitlin says. “Mostly from people who post them but also from people who find them.”
Some of the most inspiring notes, stories and photos are included in Caitlin’s first book, “Operation Beautiful: Transforming the Way You See Yourself One Post-it Note at a Time.” (Her second book, with a similar format but geared toward tweens, is due out next summer.)
She has heard from high school girls who stayed up all night at sleepovers writing hundreds of notes to plaster across school bathrooms. And she has heard from women who sought treatment for eating disorders after finding notes that reminded them “You’re good enough the way you are.”
“I love getting e-mails like that. It never gets old,” Caitlin says.
“A lot of people feel like they don’t have any power and they’re just one person and they can’t enact any real change. You can. With a little Post-it and five seconds of the day, you can create change.”
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Jennifer Kirby is a writer and editor who lives in Southern Pines, N.C., with her husband and two children. She does her best to make time for running, reading, road tripping, bargain hunting, and long, winding conversations. www.jenniferdarekirby.com