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August 22, 2006

Your Weekly Reeder: At least Shirley Temple got to grow up

Looking through the lineup of events for the Kentucky State Fair, I noted the usual competitions for rooster-crowing, hog-calling, pie-baking and watermelon-growing. Mercifully, the list did not include a corndog-eating contest. You know what I mean if you saw ESPN’s coverage of the Nathan’s Famous Hot-Dog Eating Contest at Coney Island in New York.But what made me happiest was that the State Fair doesn’t sponsor a child beauty pageant. I thought those things were sick long before the JonBenet Ramsey case. Now I know they are. In fact, I would support a movement to make beauty pageants illegal for anybody under the age of 18.Until the JonBenet case resurfaced last week, I hadn’t thought about it since the day last winter when The Courier-Journal ran a startling photo on the front page of its Metro section.It was taken at either a child beauty pageant or a cheerleading competition. It showed several girls under the age of 10, their sweet young faces tarted up with makeup and their hair fixed in adult fashions. My first thought was, “Every pedophile who sees this will cut it out and paste it on his wall.”Understand, I wasn’t blaming the newspaper. If anything, it was doing the public a service by reminding us that some parents are so warped, so starved for attention or some kind of self-validation, that they will exploit their children’s physical beauty without regard for the possible consequences.When I mentioned my contempt for child beauty pageants to my college friend Stephanie Gardner, a mother and retired teacher in Fayette County, she immediately snapped, “It’s child abuse.”And it is, by official definition.According to the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment and Adoption Reform Act, child abuse is “the physical or mental injury, sexual abuse or exploitation, of a child under circumstances which indicate the child’s health or welfare is threatened or harmed.”The danger from sexual predators is only part of the problem. Defenders of child beauty pageants argue that they teach self-confidence and poise. But studies have shown that for every child who may derive some benefit from the competition, hundreds of others suffer damage to their self-esteem and develop warped values about their bodies, which often leads to anorexia or bulimia. Due to the ever-increasing proliferation of cable TV and the Internet, child abuse is an even bigger problem today than it was almost a decade ago, when JonBenet was found murdered in the basement of her home in Boulder, Colo.Over and again, the Fox News Network and its ilk showed photos and videotape of JonBenet competing in beauty pageants. Here she was dancing, singing, smiling, flirting. Shirley Temple redux. But where Shirley at least was allowed to be a little girl, JonBenet was made up, coiffed and dressed to look far older than her age, which was 6 at the time.Six! Most girls her age were still playing with dolls. Instead, JonBenet was a doll — a living, breathing Barbie — with which her parents were playing. It didn’t take a psychologist to figure out that her mother, Patsy, herself a former beauty queen, was reliving her unfulfilled fantasies through her daughter.It was just … so … tacky! And disgusting. And dangerous. And perfect for the 24-hour cable TV channels that rose to prominence during the O.J. Simpson murder trial and were hungry for the next sordid sex story. When I heard that authorities had arrested a suspect in Thailand and that he had confessed to the murder, I knew what was coming. Sure enough, it was virtually impossible to click on a cable news network last weekend without encountering a Greta Van Sustern or a Larry King interviewing some “expert” about the case. And like a recurring nightmare, here was all the old JonBenet footage, just as disturbing now as it was then.Most of the speculation centered around whether the suspect’s confession was real or whether he was just another sicko looking for his 15 minutes of fame. But whether he’s the killer or not, I don’t think it lets JonBenet’s parents, particularly her mother, who died recently of cancer, off the hook.They put their child in harm’s way by exploiting her publicly in child beauty pageants. The suspect said that’s how he became aware of her and interested in her — an admission that should give pause to every parent who’s even considering putting their child into a beauty pageant.Thank heavens there’s no such animal at the State Fair. Contact the writer at billyr@leoweekly.com