PrettyThin was once the world’s largest community for individuals with eating disorders. It now serves as an archive, preserving the history, as well as ensuring that the domain is not used for other purposes outside of the original intention.
In 2003, the topic of eating disorder websites was trending in the news. Individuals with absolutely no knowledge of website development were able to create their own sites, and hundreds of sites began appearing daily that serviced as journals and collections of images and mantras that would be referred to as Pro-Ana. The creators of these sites were usually teenage girls, and the images were fueled by images of supermodels and celebrities flaunting “perfect,” skinny bodies.
After an episode on the Oprah Winphrey Show, more and more news outlets began to talk about the growing problem of “Pro-Ana,” allegedly teaching girls to become anorexic. As a result, advocates and concerned parents began scouring the internet, reporting these sites to the website providers, requesting that they be shut down.
In late 2003, I was working for a website publishing platform and was taking down a dozen of these sites a day under the premise that they were in violation of our terms of service, under the category of promoting self harm. After months of this practice, I became skeptical that we would be able to control the problem simply by removing the sites; every time I removed a dozen, two dozen more would appear. I decided to change tactics. Rather than simply remove these sites blindly, I wanted to find out what they were really about, and what made them so important to those creating them.
I began to email the users with more than just a canned response informing them of the violation and removal of their site from our platform, and started to ask if they were willing to have a dialogue with me about their site. I received no replies. I was about to write to one site owner when I recognized the address as belonging to a friend who I knew for some time. After grappling with the question of whether it would be appropriate of me to confront the friend, I decided to do so. She opened up to me about her battle with weight, self-image, and even self-worth, and confided that I was the only one who knew about her battle with restrictive eating and occasionally bulimia. I was unprepared to offer any intentional support, mostly hearing her story in silence.
The following day, she sent me a text, thanking me for listening to her. She said that although it did not change how she felt, it was a tremendous relief to be able to talk to someone about it. The next day, I asked if she was willing to let me take over her website – one that she had started and abandoned months ago – in hopes that I might be able to have a conversation with visitors to the site. She agreed.
The next day, I installed a forum on the site, as well as a photo gallery and blog to which visitors to the site could contribute, if they became members. I was utilizing tools that our company had just released. I assumed the name of “Angie,” afraid that revealing who I was would draw skepticism or criticism. In the beginning, I was a passive member, only listening to what was being said, often disturbed by what was being shared. There were rare occasions I would respond to a discussion, either mediating a quarrel or addressing an issue on the site. I was completely ignorant at the time, to the point where I posted in the terms of the site that anorexia was a topic that could be discussed, but not bulimia, because it was more harmful than other eating disorders.
The site began to grow, at first with ten to twenty new members a day, and eventually to more than fifty new members a day. And in those early days, I started to understand that the demographic of individuals with eating disorders was extremely diverse. Though the majority were women, there were many men that were members of the community, a group that felt more isolated and alone in their struggle than anyone else. Teenagers, mothers, father, husbands, wives, ranging in all ages from just teenagers to those in their fifties and sixties. Some members were in the closet about their disorder; some were open about it with their partners; some struggled with their families while others had families that were completely unaware; some had been in and out of treatment centers, while others were being forced to go for the first time. Students, teachers, nurses, chefs – professionals from every field, including those in the healthcare industry, were on the site.
At it’s peak between 2008 and 2010, there was over 75,000 active members, with over 10,000 members returning daily. The forum was receiving thousands of posts a day, and had become one of the most active forums on our platform. The discussions spanned the entire spectrum. We had predators on the site, who would quickly be reported and who’s identities I would quickly expose. We had people asking for advice on how to fast, restrict, or purge. Some create fasting groups. But the majority of the interactions were simply “hello, me name is _______. I have an eating disorder and nobody understands what I’m going through. I feel alone, and just need someone to talk to.”
During this time I began to receive dozens of emails a day from members. Many of them would say “There was I time I was so alone with this that I wanted to kill myself.” Some stated that they had tried. But that thanks to the community, they no longer felt alone.
There were often people who would come to the site looking to lose weight quickly, for prom or spring break, and they would quickly be directed to weight watchers and informed that PrettyThin was not about losing weight. Many young individuals would join the site, initially confused about who they were, wanting to look pretty. The community would quickly support them in fostering a better self-image. A common statement on the site was “I wouldn’t wish an eating disorder on anyone,” and the people on the community understood better than anyone what it meant to be constantly accompanied by the demon that was their disorder.
Many members would educated others on the experience of treatment centers, and often thanked one another for giving them the support they needed to confront their disorder where the clinics had failed. Recovery had become a common topic. Members understood that they might battle their disorder for the rest of their lives, but that they did not need to give in to the temptations and urges that it brought with it.
The site eventually closed in 2014. There were many reasons for this, the greatest of which may simply be that it became more than I could handle as an individual. The site received no revenue, and though there were occasions when I asked for donations, it never came close to covering the cost of the site. Beyond finances, the investment of time needed to guide conversations and support the handful of moderators assigned to the site was more than I was able to manage. The needs to the community grew as the number of members did.
One of the biggest contributors to the demise of the site was the media attention it received. In 2012, I was asked to appear on the Dr. Oz show and represent PrettyThin. I was excited and highly unprepared for the opportunity. I had hoped that finally the individuals of sites such as PrettyThin would have a chance to be heard. Instead, I was introduced as “the man who is teaching girls to become anorexic.” The show needed a villain, and I was no prepared to be it. It was only after the show and after I was over the shock of being portrayed in that way in front of an audience – and soon national television – that I was I had responded by saying “Dr. Oz, I am disappointed in you.” I wish I had had the constitution to stand up for the community, and to shed light on a topic that so many, including Dr. Oz, seemed to be so ignorant about.
The day the show aired the site received 20,000 more visitors than usual. The safe haven for the people who needed a place to talk openly about their issues had become flooded with people wishing to save them from themselves. In the weeks that followed, more and more people joined the site, not with the intention to listen, learn, and understand, but with the mission to be a savior, introduce the members to Jesus, or to create turmoil within the site. The latter worked. People were on edge, not only losing their sanctuary, but also being attacked for thinking and feeling the way they did. Worse, the community began to change. Having once been a support community, it was attracting just the kind of people Dr. Oz was trying to prevent from finding these sites – people who wanted to learn how to lose weight fast, how to starve, how to purge, how to “get an eating disorder.” It was the beginning of the end.
In 2014 I officially closed the site, some of which was under revolt, some of which was attempting mutiny, and all of which had lost its purpose. The safe haven and place where individuals could talk openly about their eating disorder was lost. What remains now is this archive.