The Tragedy of JonBenet

The day after Christmas will mark the 20th anniversary of a Colorado six-year-old's death, due to head trauma and asphyxiation by strangulation. I'm referring, of course, to JonBenet Ramsey. I still find it difficult to reconcile those unreal magazine pictures of JonBenet (whose perverse celebrity includes first-name recognition), with the grim reality of a dead child, stashed under a blanket in a basement with the garrote that killed her around her neck.

Twenty years and we're ready for an anniversary. Dr. Phil is running interviews with JonBenet's older brother, Burke, who was nine at the time of the murder.[1] CBS has run a "docuseries" on the murder, four hours' worth. If you missed it, don't worry; you can still stream it online.[2] Newsweek just put out a 100-page magazine commemorative edition.[3] I called my local grocery store to see if I could get a copy but was told, sorry, the issue is sold out. The Lifetime channel has just cast JonBenet for their upcoming November movie release, "Who Killed JonBenet?"[4]

Twenty years and what have we learned? We haven't learned who killed JonBenet. But that's not all we haven't learned, I'm afraid. In June, the American College of Pediatricians released a policy statement called "The Impact of Pornography on Children,"[5] sounding the alarm over the effects of pornography: "Clearly, pornography has become pervasive throughout modern American society (page 2)" and concluding, "as pornography becomes more accepted in a society, that society becomes more hypersexualized and this can increase the demand for sex trafficked women and children (page 3)."

Twenty years ago, the pictures of JonBenet immortalized a sanitized version of a societal willingness to hypersexualize our children, especially our little girls. The pictures that hit the media were not of a normal six-year-old. Would JonBenet be alive today if she had been a normal six-year-old? I can't say. We'll never know and maybe that's why people are still so fascinated. Was she killed because of how she looked in those pictures?

Hypersexualized little girls grow up with higher rates of anxiety, depression and obsession over their appearance. They develop increased body dysmorphia and eating disorders. Tragically, they can pass along self-hatred of their bodies to their children. I've seen this domino-effect in my work, especially, with eating disorders.

While reading the ACP position paper on children and pornography, I saw they cited the Zillman/Bryant studies on the effects of pornographic exposure done in the 1980's (page 2-3). There was a list of observed effects, including the following: "8. Men experienced a decreased desire for children, and women experienced a decreased desire to have a daughter." I found that statement chilling. Hypersexualization can have insidious effects on how we view females.

Over the past twenty years, failure to protect our children from hypersexualization and early sexualization has resulted in a grotesque sort of job security for me as a therapist, because little children don't stay little. They grow up and come to me to try to recover from being devalued in a multitude of ways.

Over the past twenty years, shouldn't we have learned something - not from JonBenet's death but from her life? Why is "Toddlers and Tiaras" still on the air? I thought it was dead a couple of years ago but, apparently, it's back, as of this past August.[6] Now we could watch dozens of JonBenet wannabes, dressed up, made up, sexed up, with fake hair, fake breasts, fake nails and fake teeth -- making little girls look older, and, yes, sexier, than they are.

The trailer for the upcoming Lifetime movie on JonBenet shows a young girl running up a set of stairs. Her voiceover says "I was Little Miss Colorado. This Christmas, I would be twenty-six but, to everyone, I'll always be six.[7] The tragedy is JonBenet wasn't allowed to be six but, now, in death, she is.