When the six-year-old beauty pageant queen JonBenét Ramsey was found murdered in her parent's basement in Boulder, Colorado nearly 20 years ago, I was just a kid. JonBenét and I were both born in 1990, and we both had blue eyes, fair skin, and curly, blonde hair. I mean, we didn't look like identical twins or anything, and there were plenty of things we didn't have in common. My family's financial status at the time could, at best, be defined as lower-middle class, whereas Ramsey's parents were very wealthy. But, even at six years old, I think I knew that JonBenét's appearance might have attracted the predator who killed her.
So each time I saw Ramsey's face plastered all over magazine stands in the checkout isles of my mom's favorite grocery stores, I felt ill at ease with my own appearance. I think I often wondered, without even fully comprehending what it was that I was wondering about, how things might have been different for Ramsey if her beauty hadn't been enhanced so dramatically and then displayed so publicly. I won't say this thought is the sole reason I felt uncomfortable in pink frills and makeup as a kid, but it certainly played a part.
This autumn's highly-anticipated release of three different documentaries and one Lifetime movie about the mysterious death of child beauty queen JonBenét Ramsey has gotten many Americans thinking about the unsolved case for the first time in years. Though I typically avoid all things true crime, I can admit that I'm just as intrigued as everyone else seems to be by the renewed interest in Ramsey's murder. Moreover, all this media coverage of Ramsey's case has pushed me to acknowledge how the JonBenét case affected me as a kid.
1. I Grew Suspicious Of Strangers Who Complimented My Appearance & Had Nightmares About Being Kidnapped
Unfortunately — or perhaps very fortunately, depending on how you look at it — in the wake of Ramsey's murder, I grew extra suspicious of strangers. I remember having nightmares, which would sometimes end with me screaming myself awake, about being kidnapped at Wal-Mart. (Remember, I was the exact same age as her.)
I remember one time, when I was walking with my grandpa and I heard a couple of little boys whispering about how "cute" I was. Immediately, I turned around, my index finger raised in fury, and venomously replied, "Watch it, buster!" And when men at my parents church would talk about how pretty I was in my church clothes, I would automatically feel uncomfortable, no matter how kind I knew they actually were.
2. I Began Worrying About My Sister Being Sexualized
At six years old, I don't think I'd ever heard the term, "sexualized" yet. If I had, I probably didn't even know what it meant. Still, every time I saw Ramsey's smiling face covering magazines and TV screens, I knew she'd been sexualized in both life and death, despite the fact that she was literally a kindergartner.
Not only did Ramsey's death play a role in my own fears of being sexualized by dangerous strangers, but I started worrying that my sister would be sexualized as well. She'd competed in a beauty pageant or two at that point, she was two years older than me, gorgeous, and a natural-born performer. Whether it was dancing, acting, or painting, my sister's talents often put her in view of the public. This worried me as a kid, because Ramsey's case made it abundantly clear to me that you never really know who's watching, and innocence doesn't guarantee safety. Eventually, I realized my sister would be sexualized by our society no matter what she did.
3. It's Part Of The Reason I Felt So Uncomfortable During My Dance Recitals
Alright, so I won't place the blame for my childhood dread of dance recitals entirely on the shoulders of the Ramsey case. The thing is, when you're prone to anxiety, self-conscious as hell, and you don't really like dancing in public, dance recitals are naturally going to incite some discomfort. But I do feel like seeing JonBenét's face in full makeup, seemingly everywhere I went for months, is part of the reason I felt super weird about being "dolled up" for my five years of dance recitals.
The red lipstick, which always seemed to be included in the costumes of at least one of my routines, left me feeling particularly uneasy — because more than her soft curls or her perfectly manicured lashes, the photos and videos that showed Ramsey's lips painted red always stood out to me. As anyone who has ever rocked a red lip knows, red lips are impossible to hide behind, and I was a kid who wanted to be able to hide if I needed to.
4. It Affected How I Dressed For Many Years
I was a self-conscious kid. Combine that with the fact that my siblings and I spent countless hours of our childhoods in the Mark Twain National Forest, and you can probably see why it's likely that I would have rocked jeans and t-shirts as a kid no matter what. That said, one of the biggest reasons I didn't buy my first dress until high school, or wear pink with any sort of regularity until the age of 16 — habits which lead many of my friends and family to believe I was a closeted lesbian — was because I didn't want to do anything that would draw extra attention to my beauty, my femininity, or my ever-changing form.
Even "dressed down," my appearance was quite often the first thing about me that both adults and children alike would comment on, so I rarely deviated from my "tomboy" style. When I did, I would usually regret it later. I remember this happening one evening, a couple of years after Ramsey's murder. My mom was going to take my siblings and I out for Taco Bell, and for some reason, I chose to be "brave" and wear pink shorts with ruffles. When we arrived at the restaurant, we ran into my uncle, and he made a comment about the ruffles on my shorts. Though he meant nothing by it, I immediately felt unsafe. I had made myself easier to spot, I had purposely drawn attention to my girlhood, and I felt stupid for it. I changed the second I got home, and I never wore those shorts again.
5. It's Part Of The Reason I Didn't Feel Comfortable Competing In Beauty Pageants
OK, so I'm not going to say that Ramsey's case was the only reason I didn't feel comfortable being part of the whole child beauty pageant circuit as a kid. The fact is, I was an incredibly self-conscious and anxious child, so I doubt I would have jumped at the chance for a pageant crown even if JonBenét had lived past her sixth Christmas. However, I do think JonBenét's beauty queen status left me feeling even more anxious about the whole idea. When I witnessed how, even in death, Ramsey's striking beauty made it impossible for her to hide from anyone, I think even the prospect of competing in beauty pageants made me feel incredibly vulnerable.
I did, however, compete in one pageant four years after Ramsey's death. I was 10 years old by then, and I wanted to compete solely because I was still afraid to. Surprisingly, the thought of never overcoming that fear bothered me more than idea of parading around in a pink dress and makeup so adult strangers could tell me how pretty they thought I was or wasn't. Unsurprisingly, I hated every second of it. I think my distaste for the event showed, too, because I didn't even place. But I was proud of myself for participating anyway. Still am, actually.
As time went on, the more strangers and friends alike complimented my appearance without anything bad happening to me, the more I realized I don't need to feel threatened by my own body. Currently, I sport revealing fashion, eye makeup, and mega-blondness on the regular. I'm happy to say that I've long since abandoned the need to blend in — but it's an instinct that took all of my childhood, and some of my adulthood, to shake off.
Images: Elizabeth Enochs