Four years ago, a note containing three simple words started a movement.
“I was having a really bad day and being really negative and down on myself. I was standing in a bathroom, thinking all these horrible thoughts about myself,” Caitlin Boyle says. “And something just came over me.”
Boyle reached into her bag, pulled out a piece of paper and wrote “You are beautiful” on it before sticking it on a mirror in that same bathroom. She snapped a photo of the note, posted it on her blog; it went viral and the idea for Operation Beautiful was born.
“The concept is that people leave anonymous positive messages in public places for other people to find,” Boyle says. “They usually focus on positive body image but one of the best things about Operation Beautiful is that it’s a really simple concept so you can make it whatever you want it to be.”
Boyle, a Miami native who now lives in Charlotte, N.C., returned to South Florida on Nov. 14 to speak to students at FIU’s Biscayne Bay Campus and Modesto A. Maidique Campus about the movement designed to combat negative self-talk and negative body image one note at a time.
What are you hoping to accomplish with Operation Beautiful?
My goal is to challenge people to think more positively and to stop their negative self-talk. I think it’s very important for people to think about the roots of their negative self-talk and look at society with a critical eye, to think about where these messages are coming from and the purpose of those messages. I think this can have a really transforming effect on the way young people see themselves and the way they see other people, too.
How is Operation Beautiful active on college campuses and how has the movement affected students at the college level?
It’s really popular around midterms and finals when people are doubting themselves and their abilities. Maybe they’re studying really hard in the library and they need a break so they’ll start writing notes and putting them in books so people will find them when they check out the book.
College is a big time of transition by its very definition. As with any transition, it can create a lot of self-doubt and confusion and I think it’s good to have a touchstone to keep you focused, positive and on the track you want to be on. It’s very easy to be distracted from that.
When it comes to negative self-talk and body image, what are the challenges a college student faces in urban environments like Miami?
A lot of my personal opinions about body image, feminism and beauty come from growing up in Miami because Miami is a totally different beast than the rest of the country in terms of body image. I was on my way here, and I was distracted by this huge billboard for a Brazilian butt lift. I swear I almost got into a car accident when I saw it!
There is a lot of pressure in Miami and in big cities to look a certain way and it’s easy to get caught up in that. It’s really about finding a group of people who have a similar viewpoint to you about what actually matters in life and staying in that group. Even in a big city like Miami, not everybody thinks in one way and it might seem like the culture is pushing people to that one ideal about what people should look and act like, but there are plenty of people who think differently. You just have to find them.
What are some other practical steps students can take and resources they can use to combat negative thinking and poor self-esteem?
The first step would be putting on-campus resources to good use. I always joke that college students don’t understand how expensive therapy is. Then you get out into the “real world” and you realize that it costs about $100 a pop! In college you get free therapy and that’s an awesome resource for college students and I always urge people to check it out. I think there’s a big misconception about therapy that you have to be really crazy or screwed up to go, but you don’t. It’s a great tool for people who just need a little extra help or have questions about emotional health.
I also like to talk to people about taking simple steps to transform negative thoughts. The little two-step technique that I always teach is when you have a negative thought about yourself, you should put a big stop sign in your brain. I think it helps stop the thought immediately if you have a visual cue.
And then I like to replace the negative thought with something positive, but realistic. If you’re struggling in chemistry and your positive replacement thought is that you’re going to be a Nobel Prize-winning chemist when you grow up, you’re probably not going to believe it and then go back to negative thinking. It’s always good to focus on the times in your past when you’ve overcome trials. Remind yourself of what you have accomplished and how far you’ve come.
It goes a long way to do nice things for other people. It’s really easy to get wrapped up in yourself and your own issues and your own concerns, but even taking a minute out of your day to write an Operation Beautiful note for someone else can really help you refocus and get in a better state of mind.
What have been some of the notes, or stories associated with them, that have stood out to you and made an impact?
I’ve had two people email me who were on their way to committing suicide when they found an Operation Beautiful note and it stopped them and made them go get help. One person was getting into an elevator to get to the roof of a building to jump off and they found a note there in the elevator.
I hear stories every day from middle school and high school kids who are being bullied who find a note which helped them realize there are other kids in the school who feel the same way they did.
Not everyone who finds a note has a life-altering experience; at a minimum, I think people find them and just smile. Sometimes people who are going through rough times in their lives wish they had a sign that things were going to get better and then they sometimes actually find signs in the form of Operation Beautiful notes. It’s always great to hear stories of people who were in the right place at the right time to find that inspiration.
Boyle was invited to speak on campus through a collaboration between the FIU Women’s Center, FIU Wellness Center, and CAPS for the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
To find out more about Caitlin and Operation Beautiful or to send a note and share your experiences with the movement, visit OperationBeautiful.com or send an email to OperationBeautiful@gmail.com. If you or someone you know is struggling with depression, please contact FIU Counseling and Psychological Services.