About eight or 10 years ago, I went to the ladies' room in my favorite bar one night and discovered some new graffiti as I went to wash my hands. "This is not a trick mirror," it said, with an arrow pointing down toward my face. "You are beautiful." I smiled at first, and then, before I knew it, actually choked up a bit. (Um, I might have been drinking.) At the time, I was struggling daily with my body image, as I had pretty much every day since I hit puberty. I think it was the construction of the message that really got to me, the presumption that I -- and every woman who passed through there -- would look in that mirror and see a beautiful face, but wonder whether that first impression was trustworthy. For most of the women I knew, our experience with mirrors was usually the opposite: We'd look and immediately start cataloging every flaw, only questioning our judgment if we happened to catch a glimpse of something not so bad. Seeing that thought process turned on its head had a far more powerful effect than I would have expected.
Caitlin Boyle of Orlando is on a mission to give every woman in America a moment like that, only minus the destruction of property. A few weeks ago, she wrote "You are beautiful" on a Post-It note and stuck it on a public bathroom mirror. She posted about it on her blog, and soon after, her readers had sent in over 100 stories and photos of their own body-positive evangelization via Post-It. Thus, Operation Beautiful was born. Women all over the country are sticking the notes on diet books in stores, on gym lockers, on doctors' scales. Not just "You are beautiful," but "Stop judging yourself" and "Yes, your butt looks great in those jeans" and "Remember, a muffin top does not mean you are a bad person." On a drugstore display of the weight loss drug Alli (pronounced "ally," because we all need someone in our corner who makes us poop our pants in the pursuit of thinness), someone left the message "Treat yourself as you would treat a friend." Nice.
The cumulative effect of seeing all those notes in one place does eventually go from inspiring to sort of cheesy and banal; after you've read the words "You are beautiful" a couple dozen times, they start to lose power. But still, I know from experience that seeing a message like that in an unexpected location really can smack you in your perfectly fine face and make you wonder why you spend so much time hating your body. And just as important, the women leaving the notes report that the act of writing these thoughts down has a positive effect on them, too. One wrote to Boyle, "I've really been struggling with my body image lately, and after posting the note, I started sobbing during my run because I realized that that note applies to me just as much as anyone else." As women, we're conditioned both to avoid speaking positively about our own looks, for fear of being thought egotistical (or worse, judged delusional), and to compete with other women in some imaginary, winner-takes-all beauty race. The anonymity and randomness of this project -- the very things that might make the messages seem meaningless at first -- are what give it power. The Post-Its allow us to tell each other what we can't say in polite company: that you, fellow woman, are not my enemy. You are a beautiful human being -- and you and you and you and you and you, too. And hey, how 'bout that, so am I.