One day, filled with low self-esteem and a negative inner voice that wouldn’t shut up, Caitlin Boyle did something crazy. She wrote “you are beautiful” on a note, posted it on a public restroom mirror, and took a picture of it. That day, Operation Beautiful was born.
“I’ve really begun to understand so much through Operation Beautiful, that so much of life is how you react to things. ” Caitlin Boyle
Now, the 27-year-old award-winning blogger, runner, and soon-to-be mom, is the woman behind a movement to end negative self-talk. All you have to do is write a positive note and post it in a public place for other people to find. It’s as simple as that.
In just three short years, Caitlin has created a website, her first book Operation Beautiful: Transforming the Way You See Yourself One Post-it Note at a Time and a sequel due out this summer. It’s amazing what a difference a few kind words can make.
I spoke with Caitlin about what first prompted her to post, her impact around the world and her plans for the future. Guess what? She’s not done yet making us believe WE ARE ALL BEAUTIFUL.
EYE: What was it about you that got something like Operation Beautiful started?
CAITLIN: Well, I think the cool thing about OB is that it’s a really organic and genuine business. I never set out to start a website and write two books. I just wanted to do something nice for somebody else. I think that’s why OB has become so successful. It happened naturally.
EYE: Who were you before OB?
CAITLIN: The seeds were planted for this when I was a teenager and after my college years. Like a lot of people, I was going through a rough time trying to figure out who I was and what made me happy. People think I’m always this “Susie Sunshine,” and I do try to be that kind of person, but for a really long time, I was the glass half-empty kind of person. I always looked at the negative; I always thought people were out to get me.
I went through depression during my teen years, and I struggled with self-harming. I was trying to compensate and get self-esteem from other sources. But that was like trying to put a band-aid on a hole in a dam that’s leaking. After I graduated from college, I was working at a job that was really great at first, but it started to go downhill after the economy collapsed, and then it wasn’t a very fun place to work.
So I decided to go to community college for a career change. I was working at this job I didn’t like. I was really stressed out and doing poorly in school as a result.
EYE: You were putting a lot of pressure on yourself, and it got to you?
CAITLIN: Yes…I felt really stupid because I had always done so well in school, but I was doing so poorly. That is actually what prompted the first Operation Beautiful note. I got a chemistry test back, and I got a 40% grade. So I went into the bathroom to cry and was looking in the mirror and having all of these negative feelings about how stupid I was.
To this day I don’t know really what it was but something came over me, and I pulled this note out of my bag and wrote “you are beautiful” on it and stuck it on the mirror and took a photo of it. I wrote about it on my blog, and asked others to participate, and honestly, I didn’t think anyone would.
But much to my surprise, within three days, I had 75 responses and within two months, I had a book deal. It was a whirlwind, and from that day forward, my life changed.
“It’s not easy to be positive, but being positive makes everything else so much easier.”
EYE: I can be my own worst enemy at times…very self-critical, too. You were able to snap out of it…but many people can’t.
CAITLIN: I’m an introspective person, and I have people in my life like my husband who are good at talking to me about these kinds of things. He is a firm believer in people’s ability to look inside themselves and control their own emotions and responses to things. I’ve really begun to understand so much through OB, that so much of life is how you react to things.
You can’t always help the hand that you’re dealt, but you can choose to be positive or negative about any situation. It’s not easy to be positive, but being positive makes everything else so much easier. And that’s helped me to be a more positive person.
CAITLIN: I have no idea how many notes total have been posted, but I’ve gotten about 10,000 notes! Most people don’t send the notes that they post, and I think a lot who post send me one, yet maybe post 20.
What I do know is that notes have been posted on every continent, even Antarctica and in the South Pole which is so cool! (No pun intended). There have been notes posted in Iraq as well as notes in Chinese and German…
EYE: Do you think what you went through as a teen and into your 20s is more common than not?
CAITLIN: I think what I went through unfortunately is incredibly common. One of the nice things about OB is that it can be made into whatever you want it to be. I got into this because I was feeling intellectually not good enough. It’s really become a positive body image site for a lot of people — that’s a cool aspect of the site. It can mean whatever you want it to mean, especially with body image issues.
There are more women suffering from anorexia and bulimia than have breast cancer. There’s a lot of anxiety about our bodies in our society in general, and I think on one level, everyone needs to hear a message of self-acceptance, self-love and self-respect.
CAITLIN: I’ve seen people put them on stop signs. Just below the word STOP, they posted “…the negative thoughts now. You are beautiful.” People write notes in chalk. They’ll put notes on diet pills on store shelves.
They put them on the scales at the gym. Students in middle and high school are really big participants in OB.
At one high school, on the first day of school, students put notes in all the freshmen’s lockers. OB is such a simple concept that you can use it in so many ways.
EYE: Your second book, “Operation Beautiful: For Best Friends,” targets girls eight to fourteen. Why is that?
CAITLIN: It’s been very interesting for me to see that while the site has been up and running, it’s trending younger and younger. When it first started, people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s were sending me notes…and the occasional grandma.
At least 50% of the notes that I get now are from middle and preschoolers. We tell young students, “Don’t bully each other,” and “Be nice to each other,” but we never really give them a proactive and positive way to combat certain issues. Kids at that age really like to use notes and OB as a practical and positive tool.
EYE: Is this your full-time career?
CAITLIN: Yes, and in addition to writing, I also often do motivational speaking events – about 40 a year, many at colleges – and I also have my personal blog. In addition, I help run my husband’s acupuncture business. I have my hands in many different pots.
EYE: You have really embraced social media. What motivates you to keep writing a blog day-to-day?
CAITLIN: I’ve always said that if I was living in the 50s, I would have loved to have been an advice columnist like Dear Abby. With my blog, I love to read the comments section and share people’s stories. We get to hear from other people about their journeys, learning and growing from each other.
CAITLIN: We tend to equate health with appearance in our society. We think that if we are skinny and wearing makeup, then we’re healthy. Both of my blogs are about being emotionally and physically healthy too…what that really looks like on a day-to-day basis. Of course, that can mean different things to different people. But I really love spreading that message.
EYE The website received the “Best Humanitarian Effort of 2009” by Foodbuzz, and you appeared in a video for the launch of the Oprah Winfrey Network. How happy were you about that?
CAITLIN: It is certainly nice to be acknowledged. But for me and OB, it’s all about reading those emails from people who write a note or who find a note, and who use the site to explore something within themselves. I get the nicest emails from people all the time. I always say, “I am not OB, I just run the place.”
The people who make OB what it is are the people who post the notes everyday. I’m just the lucky person who writes a blog to it every morning. I really value and treasure that experience. I think OB is so much bigger than me.
“I think one of the best things about posting a note is that you will never know who will find it. “
EYE: Is there one story that has really touched you?
CAITLIN: Yes, it was from a teenager in Canada. She wrote me to tell me she found an OB note. She was in an eating disorder treatment facility for anorexia and at a critical place with her illness. Her doctors were telling her she was going to die. She was losing her hair and getting EKG’s; her life was crumbling.
She told me that when she went into the bathroom to throw up, she found an OB note on the stall door that said, “You’re good enough the way you are,” signed by OB.com.
She said that she has been told that by everyone, but finding that note, and knowing that it was written by a stranger, she took it as a sign from God or a message from the Universe. In her email to me, she wrote “I’m going to get better.”
I was thinking her anorexia is so severe, how much can a piece of paper really help her? Well, a few months later, I followed up with her, and she said she was out of the hospital, had gained a bunch of weight and was back in school! She was doing really well!! Whoever posted that note will never know what their note did.
EYE: How do you feel about yourself now after the impact you’ve made with OB?
CAITLIN: It’s a very humbling experience to be honest. One of the things about social media is that it’s not all about me. It’s about other people and passing along information. In terms of my success, it is such a humbling experience to love doing something and to be successful at something that is good at its core.
It’s an awesome feeling to be involved with something that I feel like I am getting something more out of it than just a paycheck. It’s just really fun. I love going to work now!!!
EYE: What are your goals from here?
CAITLIN: One thing I’m working on now is called the Naked Face Project, a little experiment I’ m doing with Molly Barker, the founder of Girls on the Run. It’s a project we just started earlier this year and for 60 days, we aren’t wearing any makeup, or shaving or doing any primping.
It’s really about getting back to the basics behind our beauty habits. It’s about why we do the things we do and trying to find a new level of confidence.
EYE: As I sit here talking with you with wet hair, without makeup, and with hairy legs!!
EYE: Thanks so much for sharing your story with us, Caitlin!
What a simply brilliant idea… and here’s my first posted note!!!
Photos provided by Tamara Lackey