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« The Birthday Gift That Keeps On Giving | Main | Retention Basics »

Operation Beautiful: Sticking It to ‘Fat-Talk’

By Patricia Glynn

What if I told you that a Post-it note, the colorful stick-it-anywhere-you-like square, could potentially boost retention? Or what if I suggested that the ubiquitous office essential could possibly even help transform our industry?

It might seem a bit preposterous. You may even believe I’ve gone mad. But as Caitlin Boyle, a health blogger, fitness enthusiast, and soon-to-be-published author, discovered on an ordinary day back in June of 2009, a small piece of paper can indeed be a revolutionary tool capable of exacting a dramatic shift. After all, as she explained to me from her home in Orlando, Florida, “simple ideas can often be the best ideas.”

It was last summer when Caitlin, weary and downbeat after an especially arduous afternoon, hoped she might, with a sticky note, at least brighten someone else’s day. Upon the small pad she scribbled, with a Sharpie marker, just three words: “You are beautiful.” She stuck it squarely to a mirror in a public rest room, never imaging that what she’d done would spark a worldwide revolution that has become, officially, Operation Beautiful.

After posting that first brief but encouraging note, she shared the details of the deed on her blog. Reader response was overwhelming, and she sensed an opportunity to elicit change. It became her mission to fight fat-talk (the insidious habit of harshly critiquing one’s appearance).

Within days, followers of her site, with her prodding, began plastering cities around the globe with heartening affirmations like “You are amazing,” and “You are good enough exactly the way you are.” It caught on like “wildfire,” she acknowledges. Individuals from California to Germany, from Sweden to Japan, from New York to Iraq, from Australia to Guam, were working, under her guidance, to reduce, if not wholly eradicate, negative self-talk. Eventually, Caitlin felt compelled to introduce a new site. It serves as a place to highlight the stories of those who leave notes for others to find, as well as to chronicle the often emotional reactions of those who happen upon what she terms “a much-needed dose of kindness.” Currently, she reports, the site receives over 100,000 hits per month.

Now, perhaps more than ever, cues aimed at upping one’s self-worth are a necessity, Caitlin says. “A lot of women and men are struggling. They’re having a difficult time accepting themselves just as they are. I’ve felt that. I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t in a good place. Unfortunately, a lot of people are dealing with those emotions.” And media and advertisers, while not solely responsible for the situation, aren’t helping. In fact, she says, they’re frequently making the issue markedly worse. “Like so many others, I’ve compared myself to images of models and actors. I’ve compared myself to a strict, thin ideal that’s totally at odds with what I really look like—with what most of us look like. It’s something we can’t match. And really, what we don’t often recognize is that, in truth, what we’re seeing doesn’t even exist. It’s all generated by a computer. It’s a photo-shopped reality and so it’s not even achievable.”

But could a simple Post-it note with a few cheery words scrawled upon its surface really alter a person’s internal dialogue? Could it truly thwart self-flagellation? And what of my original query: how might this idea play out in the context of a health club?

As a fitness professional, I’m sure you know that a judgmental, disconsolate attitude can rapidly deflate motivation. Mentally berating yourself prior to, or during, a workout is a surefire way to deplete your energy and sap your strength. Exercise, under such circumstances, quickly morphs into a chore you’d rather forgo. The phenomenon has actually been scientifically verified: researchers from the University of Kansas confirmed, last year, at the annual Society of Behavioral Medicine meeting, that a negative self-image and disapproving self-talk will actually deter individuals from adhering to a workout regimen.

But the gym, Caitlin attests, is an ideal environment in which to combat poor self-esteem and fat-talk. Members are typically hyper-focused on their appearance and, more often than not, their awareness tends toward the negative. “The locker room especially is a tough spot; it’s where you can’t help but look at the people around you and compare yourself,” Caitlin laments.

Back when superficial thoughts overwhelmed her, back when fitness was about getting skinnier and fitting into a teeny bikini, she was, she confesses, a “chronic gym quitter.” Today, however, she’s an avid, fully committed exercise devotee. (Actually, in the two days following our conversation, she was scheduled to run five miles and bike 61). Thankfully, she explains, she recognized the folly of her former ways and began to value herself regardless of her looks. (And, by the way, she’s very fit and very pretty.) Her well-being and her internal happiness are, nowadays, way more important than the size of her thighs.

That attitude adjustment is one she’s eager to share and she believes gyms are especially well-suited for promoting a project like Operation Beautiful. “When I see clubs promote fitness as a life-long commitment, as a tool for attaining good overall health, rather than as simply a means to a hotter body—I know they’re the ones who are nailing it. That’s a place I want to be a part of. Operation Beautiful emphasizes being strong, fit, and healthy for reasons beyond appearance. It’s about accepting yourself exactly as you are in this moment.”

Caitlin has, in fact, seen an approach similar to her own work with great success: “One gym, for example, hung a bulletin board and invited everyone who passed to share a thoughtful note. Members encouraged one another. I love that! The positive words, such as ‘You did a great job today’ or ‘You did a great thing for your health,’ reinforce healthful behavior, and they make people want to do more of the same. People begin to feel better internally and they feel good about what they’re doing for themselves. When gyms encourage a more holistic approach, it keeps people coming back. People love that. They know the gym really cares about them more as a person than a number. A project like this, something promoting self-acceptance, surely benefits clubs and members alike.”

Caitlin’s made it her goal to post as many uplifting notes as possible. Some, she admits, may have no effect. Others may simply bring a smile to a passerby’s face. Yet, there’s always the possibility that one short message could make a long-lasting difference. In any case, her random, thoughtful acts of positivity are, undoubtedly, making the world a much more beautiful place.  

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