Youth pageants thrive, 15 years after JonBenét Ramsey’s death (Op-Ed published in The Denver Post)

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What did Santa bring the little girl in your life? A Barbie or an American Girl​ doll? Perhaps it was a gift certificate for a manicure or a facial?

Don’t be surprised if it was the latter, as girls young as 6 are making appointments at salons across the country for chemical hair straighteners, eyebrow tweezing and pedicures.

Fifteen years ago, the 6-year-old girl who helped start this beauty craze never got to open her gifts from Santa. On the morning of Dec. 25, 1996, John and Patsy Ramsey​ awoke in their Boulder home to find their daughter, JonBenét, missing. A few hours later, they found her, murdered, in their basement.

The ensuing media coverage helped propagate the child beauty pageant industry, along with a beauty culture increasingly directed at younger and younger girls. JonBenét Ramsey’s short life continues to rivet, as her murder remains unsolved. Her death was a harbinger of today’s media-saturated girlhood focused on princesses, competition and the pursuit of beauty.

In the years immediately following JonBenét’s death, the child beauty pageant industry, which I have studied since 2001, took a serious financial hit as thousands began to avoid participating in the now publicly tainted activity.

But now, 15 years later (and somewhat perversely), child beauty pageants are a bigger business than ever, and the industry has profited from the spotlight provided by the murder. Without JonBenét, there would be no “Toddlers & Tiaras​” — and no scandals to report on the cover of People or families to feature on ET or TMZ. Hundreds of small, local pageants have sprung up across the country since JonBenét participated in them.

Beauty pageants had long been part of the culture of JonBenét’s family, as they are for many women from the South. JonBenét’s mother, Patsy (nee Paugh), was Miss West Virginia in 1977. Patsy competed in the Miss America pageant, winning a non-finalist talent award.

In their 2001 book on JonBenét’s life and death, “The Death of Innocence,” John and Patsy Ramsey wrote that after seeing her mother judge a beauty pageant, JonBenét declared that she wanted to be a beauty queen as well. Patsy was delighted. She had loved her experiences in pageantry and always felt that if she had started participating in pageants when she was younger, she could have made the top 10 at Miss America, or maybe won the whole shebang.

Over the next two years, with the help of her sister, Pamela (also Miss West Virginia, in 1980), Patsy enrolled JonBenét in a total of nine child beauty pageants in Colorado, Georgia and Michigan.

JonBenét, with her sequined costumes and baby’s breath hair adornments, showed little girls that modern princess-hood was possible, before these girls could take their dolls to the hair salon (at the first American Girl store, which opened in Chicago in 1998) or look like their favorite Disney princess, with the assistance of special beauticians (Disney started marketing princesses to young girls in 2000).

Patsy Ramsey, who died from ovarian cancer in 2006, also served as a role model for some mothers. In many ways she seemed to be a throwback to the stage mothers of the past, like Shirley Temple​’s mother, who exhorted her daughter to “sparkle, sparkle, sparkle” before each take. But in other ways, in raising her daughter to compete to win, she was a new type of mother — an early version of a Tiger Mother​, albeit a bedazzled one. She wanted to give her daughter a competitive head start in a world focused on beauty — a world that she thought would bring success, achievement and glory.

Fifteen years after Patsy Ramsey’s only daughter was found dead in her home, little girls will spend the afternoon playing with their new kiddie make-up kits and strutting down homemade, makeshift runways in new sequined mini-skirts. They’ll watch DVDs featuring their favorite Disney princesses, or even catch a repeat of one of the faux princesses on “Toddlers & Tiaras.”

American girlhood may have been sashaying toward unreasonable competitive beauty ideals before JonBenét’s murder. But ultimately her death and media exposure hastened the explosion of the girly glitter bomb in the early 21st century.

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