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What price child beauty pageants?

Published Jan. 13, 1997|Updated Sep. 30, 2005

In living rooms across the nation, images of 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey have penetrated the psyches of millions of people who have closely followed the mysterious murder of the little girl from Boulder.

They see videos of JonBenet walking down the runway, wearing a tight dress with her blond hair curled, her lips painted bright red. In some, the former Little Miss Colorado sings I Wanna Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart, wearing a shimmering pink cowgirl outfit.

The coquettish kindergartener in high heels and a feathered cape was a veteran of the world of child beauty pageants _ a controversial world where infants wear lipstick and prepubescent girls may have plastic surgery.

Pageant supporters say little girls learn self-esteem and discipline, while fostering talents such as singing and dancing through the beauty shows. Plus, they earn money for college.

"There are some negatives, but there are many positives," said Barbara Kelley of Atlanta, a pageant consultant and judge, and the 1958 Miss Virginia.

"Pageants are a wonderful opportunity for children to overcome shyness and learn to grow up," Kelley said. "I know a lot of young women who are going to college because of money they won as children in pageants _ that's a wonderful reason for being in pageants."

Others say the children are getting the wrong message from the pageant scene, which has some 3-million adult and child participants in the United States, half of them under 12.

"If a girl is put into the position where she is told that her worth is measured by her looks and her ability to entertain, the message comes across very strongly that that is all she's worth," said Regina Cowles, co-coordinator of the Boulder chapter of the National Organization for Women.

Children under age 5 are in pageants because their parents want them to be, Kelley said. A typical pageant mother wants her daughter to overcome shyness or develop a musical talent, she said.

Many children _ like JonBenet _ are daughters of former pageant queens. Patsy Ramsey, JonBenet's mother, grew up in the beauty pageant circuit in the South, winning the Miss West Virginia title in 1977. Her sister, Pamela, won the same title three years later.

By the time a girl is 5 or 6, Kelley said, she usually makes the decision herself whether to continue.

"Occasionally, you'll see a child whose parent wants too much at too young an age, but normally that is not the case," Kelley said. "If they're being pushed into it, it is not a good thing at all. . . . As a judge, you can tell. There's something different there _ a certain sparkle _ when they're doing it because they're enjoying it."

But some doubt any 6-year-old child can make up her mind by herself.

"The question is, at what age can a child decide for herself?" said Cowles. "This girl _ 6 years old _ can barely cross the street by herself."

For children who do continue in pageants, the road ahead is often paved with costly singing and dancing lessons, pageant coaches, expensive dresses and summers spent in RVs, driving from pageant to pageant. Gowns cost from $200 to thousands of dollars; pageant entry fees range from $50 to $300, with an extra $25 to $100 for special contests.

Barbara Polland, a professor of child development at California State University at Northridge and the author of several popular child-rearing books, said beauty pageants teach children all the wrong messages and damage self-esteem.

"They get up there and parade around in front of judges who say, "You win and you lose,' " said Polland. She sees adults in psychotherapy sessions who have trouble with that kind of rejection _ and it is even worse for children.

Many are critical of the outfits children wear in the pageants. Videotapes of her pageants show JonBenet wearing tight off-the-shoulder dresses, pulling a feathered Mardi Gras mask almost seductively across her eyes.

"Watching girls do this makes me _ and I think many people across the country _ uncomfortable," said Cowles. "And the reason it does, is the makeup and clothes and a feigned adult behavior. It's a salacious behavior."

It's a behavior that can be unhealthy for children, Polland said.

"These are costumes adults could be wearing _ they are not childlike costumes," said Polland. "They're taught how to be provocative. What for?

"People don't understand that there are ramifications for children who act like adults."

Kelley said pageants have been adjusting to some of the criticism. Many prescribe the style or length of dresses that may be worn. Some pageants award trophies to nearly all participants for categories such as "prettiest eyes" or "prettiest smile."

But for some, that is not enough.

"We would prefer girls are valued for academics and sports ability rather than a predefined, very narrow definition of beauty," said Cowles. "It's a Madison Avenue, Kate Moss kind of thing, and for many women, it's a beauty that's completely unattainable."

Even Kelley, who has devoted much of her life to pageants, agrees. But the fault does not just lie with the pageants, she said.

"I don't think pageants do any more damage than advertisements on television or magazines," said Kelley. "Let's face it, where is it that women get the idea that thin is in, that young is in? We get it from fashion runways. We get it every time we open magazines. I don't think it's fair to blame it on pageants."

For girls who wish to be involved with pageants, Kelley recommends a balanced approach _ that girls also develop other aspects of their lives.

Kelley said the pictures of JonBenet in the pageants may have hurt people's views of pageantry. She said she hopes JonBenet _ buried in a pageant gown and tiara _ had a balanced childhood.

"I'm sad that most of the pictures of this little girl were pageant pictures," said Kelley.

"Hopefully there was more to her life than being a beauty queen."

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