The catalyst: Caitlin Boyle was writing environmental compliance documents for a land developer. But writing legal docs and analyzing the development’s environmental impact from the confines of her home office was too technical for her taste — and too solitary. “I typically had little interaction with team members or other staff on a daily basis. I preferred to work directly with people, but I was missing that aspect at my job,” Boyle says. The 25-year-old yearned to do something more creative and self-directed, and wanted to connect with people on a more personal level.
Boyle was taking night classes, hoping for a career change, and on one “really bad day” felt completely overwhelmed by work and school. Boyle realized that her own self-image was holding her back: “I thought I wasn’t smart enough to go to work and take night classes at the same time. I’m going to fail my chemistry final. I’m bad at math and can’t do this. I was suffering from negative self-talk,” she admits.
The act: So what’s a woman to do? Brighten up someone else’s day. She scribbled “You Are Beautiful” on a piece of paper, posted the note in the ladies’ room at Valencia Community College in Orlando, Florida, took a photo, and blogged about the moment. She wrote, “If this little blog only does one productive thing, I hope it helps readers realize how truly toxic negative self-talk is — it hurts you emotionally, spiritually, and physically.”
In three days, 75 notes with photos of people posting their own messages flooded her inbox. On the fourth day, Boyle launched her site, Operation Beautiful. The mission: “To post anonymous notes in public places for other women to find. The point is that we are all beautiful. You are enough … just the way you are.”
The ripple: The viral message has inspired tens of thousands of anonymous, positive notes, posted in public spots: bathroom mirrors, libraries, hospitals, and gyms. Boyle blogs six days a week, sharing stories with heartfelt messages of hope. Her favorite is from a gym: “Scales measure weight, not worth.” Others include “This is not a trick mirror, you look this awesome” and “Take a diet from your negative thoughts, fill yourself w/positive ones.”
Boyle’s mission has touched girls on every continent except Antarctica, sparking impassioned online discussions on the notions of beauty. A soldier in Iraq posted an encouraging note in the barracks, a place where beauty isn’t usually a topic of discussion. The custodial staff left the message untouched during the course of her rotation.
One 17-year-old Canadian girl, diagnosed with bulimia at age 14, credited a note for stopping her downward spiral. She wrote: “I began my first diet when I was eight. I have spent my entire life working to be ‘perfect’ and thin. It has ruined my life.” She lost her hair, nearly all her tooth enamel, and her ability to stand up straight. She spent two summers in the hospital. One day, after therapists forced her to eat a meal, she retreated to the bathroom to throw up. Then she saw a note: “You’re beautiful, you’re good enough.”
“No one has ever said that to me,” wrote the girl. “I didn’t throw up that day. It was the first time I ate something solid and did not throw it up in years.” Caitlin has been in touch with the girl and says it was a “true turning point in her treatment; she’s out of treatment and eating again.”
Her project also thwarted a suicide attempt. A girl headed to the roof of a parking garage spotted a note: “If there’s no you, someone else will be as alone as you feel now. Turn around. Operationbeautiful.com” She turned around and called a friend to pick her up. The friend wrote this email to Boyle: “Thank you so much for starting this project. She will never admit it, but she owes her life to this project.”
The self-esteem booster has even inspired clubs. Six Texas teens from Colleyville Heritage High School began to go makeup-free every Tuesday. They founded a student club, Redefining Beautiful, now 180 members strong, to resist stereotypes based on appearance. Boys at the school think the idea is beautiful, too: They created their own club to support the girls’ message.
Boyle’s positive message continues to multiply: “The Today Show,” “The Early Show,” the Oprah Winfrey Network, and many other mediums are spreading the compassion. As for her career, Boyle is literally writing the next chapter of her professional life. She continues to blog for a living and has been commissioned to write a book, appropriately titled “Operation Beautiful: Transforming the Way You See Yourself One Post-It Note at a Time.”
“It created this great circle of random acts of kindness. It proves you’re never alone, you can change a life, and you can do something nice for strangers,” says Boyle. “When I post a note, I’m saying, “I choose to be positive!”