“Don’t stress. You already look beautiful!” That’s a pretty nice comment to hear from a stranger, right? In June 2009, Caitlin Boyle grew tired of hearing girls and women talking negatively about their looks and decided to fight all the “Fat Talk.”
She scribbled the words “You are beautiful!” on a sticky note and slapped it on a bathroom mirror for other women to read. The response has been overwhelming. Just over a year later, thousands of people have followed her lead and posted anonymous positive messages to help other ladies see that they’re beautiful just as they are. Caitlin’s website, operationbeautiful.com, now hosts notes people have posted in colleges, gyms, and high schools around the world, and her book Operation Beautiful: Transforming the Way You See Yourself One Post-it Note at a Time hit bookstores in August 2010. Teen Voices’ Lauren Castner talked with Caitlin about her inspiring campaign.
Teen Voices (TV): When and why did you decide to start Operation Beautiful?
Caitlin Boyle (CB): I didn’t put up the first note thinking that it would become a website or book. I just wanted to be nice to somebody else; I was having a very bad day, so I decided to post a note that said “you are beautiful” on the bathroom mirror. I took a photo of that note and then I put it up on my personal blog. I asked people to participate; I just really wanted people to have an opportunity to do something nice for other people to make us all feel better too.
TV: What is Fat Talk?
CB: Fat Talk is negative self-talk about your body. You don’t have to do it out loud to other people -- sometimes Fat Talk is internal. So maybe when you’re trying on clothes in the dressing room and you think, “Nothing looks good on me, I’m so fat!” or just telling yourself your worthless based on your personal appearance. I often see women Fat Talk together; one will say, “I shouldn’t get dessert, I’m so fat lately” and the other one will say, “You’re not fat. Look at me, look at my thighs!” It becomes almost a kind of bonding [to sit there and talk poorly about yourself].
TV: Why do you think Fat Talk is so prevalent?
CB: Probably the primary cause is these impossible standards that the media has created for us to look like. We’re all supposed to look like models in magazines, and if we don’t, there’s something wrong with us, and there’s some cellulite cream we can buy, or skin-firming lotion, or we need to try this speed diet. There’s incredible pressure to look a certain way, and we’re taught that appearance is the most important thing.
TV: Why do you think Fat Talk is starting to happen among younger and younger girls?
CB: I think younger kids are exposed to more adult content at a younger age. I think the Internet and having access to more adult things at your fingertips definitely changes the way younger girls view themselves. Even images in Seventeen magazine and other teen magazines, all those images have been Photoshopped and altered, and I’m not sure that young girls really understand that.
TV: Can you tell us about some of the notes that you’ve received?
CB: People really like to put them on scales at the gym, or in library books about eating disorders or going through a divorce. Some of my favorite Operation Beautiful notes say things like, “Scales measure weight, not worth.” That’s my favorite one. I also like the one that says, “Take a diet from negative thoughts.”
TV: Is there a particular note that has affected you the most?
CB: Yes, it was an email I received from a girl who was 17 and was living in Canada. She was in treatment for an eating disorder and she was really, really, really anorexic. She was in that group of people that might die from the disease. Her doctor said, “You know, we’re going to make you eat a solid food meal.” It was the first time she had eaten solid food in months; she had been living off Slim Fast shakes and things like that, and she was very upset about eating this meal. And she went into the bathroom because she was going to throw it up, and she closed the stall door and she saw an Operation Beautiful note that said, “You’re good enough the way you are. You are beautiful.” She said that was a transforming moment in her treatment and recovery. She felt that that note was meant just for her. She didn’t throw up, she got out of treatment, gained weight, and it was amazing to see that one note really had such an awesome and positive effect on someone’s life.
TV: How far reaching has the project become?
CB: There have been notes in Iraq, China, Guatemala, Sweden, France, Spain, Honduras, Belize, South Africa, Kenya. They’ve come from every continent. Not just English-speaking places, and not just Western cultures either, which I think goes to show that no matter where you’re from, people struggle with negative talk and they want to find a positive way to change their lives.
TV: What advice would you give to a teen girl who is struggling with body issues and low self-esteem?
CB: Everything you already need is inside of you. We spend a lot of time in our lives looking for validation from other people, or the media, or the scale. But true validation can only come from you. You have to find something inside of you that makes you happy and excited for life. I think a lot of people can find that feeling if they do volunteer work or if they challenge themselves to run a 5K or just challenge themselves to do something they’ve never done before. Finding what excites you and trying to strive to reach that goal is a great way to build confidence and body image.
TV: What would you say to a teen girl who wants to start her own campaign?
CB: Never underestimate how powerful a small action can be, especially when you’re doing something nice for somebody else. Even if you just do something positive in your high school or in your community, if you can affect one or two people, you can have a lifelong impact on them and that’s truly amazing. So don’t ever think that you’re not doing enough. Even if you touch just one person, that’s enough.
The skinny on ending Fat Talk
You can join the Fat Talk fight too! Email Caitlin at OperationBeautiful@gmail.com with a photograph of your Operation Beautiful note and become part of the Fat Talk revolution. You can also visit operationbeautiful.com to see all the photos.
Photos courtesy of Caitlin Boyle and Gotham Books