Online bullies almost destroyed Meghan Pearces self-esteem.

One slow afternoon at her Arizona public relations job, 25-year-old Meghan Pearce found herself browsing the Scottsdale page on the gossip website thedirty.com. The site features photos mostly of women and invites readers to post snarky, anonymous comments about them. Pearce knew women who’d been ridiculed on The Dirty, so she’d occasionally log on to read it with the morbid fascination of a rubbernecker at the scene of a car wreck.

Clicking through the site, she came upon a category called “Would You?” where users debate whether they’d have sex with the women in the photos. The consensus is almost always “no,” and the reasons are a competition in cruelty. “Face like a horse!” says a typical comment. “Giant nipples,” says another. And then Pearce froze—there on the computer screen she saw her photo. In the picture, taken at a fashion show she’d modeled in, Pearce was strutting the runway in a short red dress; she’d liked it enough to post it on her MySpace page. Now, stomach churning, she opened the comments link, bracing for what readers of The Dirty had to say.

Her worst fears were confirmed. “Thunder thighs!” she saw. Another post said that she looked like a shih tzu. Perhaps most hurtful was when she read that her nose was “too big”; as a child, Pearce had been self-conscious about her nose. Even as she began to cry, Pearce kept reading the insults. She wasn’t the only one: Within days, she got sympathetic calls and e-mails from friends as far away as New York who had seen the posts too.

In the face of this public humiliation, Pearce’s confidence plummeted. She doubled her workouts and briefly considered cosmetic surgery. I have a boyfriend, I don’t go out much, I try to be nice, Pearce said to herself. Who would do this to me?