If you grew up in Australia in the 90s or 2000s, you’ll need no introduction to Australia’s seminal teen magazine—Dolly. It was every girl’s go-to for (often dubious) fashion and beauty advice, celebrity interviews, horoscopes and the prestigious—albeit controversial—Dolly Model Search.
Nestled among the tear-out posters of Avril Lavigne and quizzes on which Jonas Brother you belong with was a “sealed section”, where teens would write in their burning questions on health, sex and relationships to be answered by Dolly Doctor.
The fashion guidance may have been questionable at times, but the health and life advice found in the sealed section was always spot on.
Melissa Kang is an academic, clinician and adolescent health advocate; and from 1993 to 2016, she was Dolly Doctor.
As a woman in my mid-20s who grew up reading Dolly mag religiously, I was eager to chat with Melissa about her time in the role.
“There were some questions about body bits that I just couldn’t figure out.” she says.
“Not the reader’s fault, just that sometimes you really have to be there! The other group of questions that stood out tended to be ones that weren’t published as they were too long, where you got a life story about complex relationships and love triangles and fights with friends. They weren’t peculiar, just kind of poignant and sad and heartwarming at the same time.”
Image cred: teenagebedroomsonscreen.com
Melissa explains that broadly speaking, the most common questions received were about changes associated with puberty. Namely; “periods, breasts, weight gain, stretch-marks, sexual feelings and crushes”. I wish I could say some of these were no longer relatable and stop at puberty, alas, none of them do.
All published questions were sent in by real readers and the magazine staff never fabricated them. She muses on the sense of pressure that came with addressing sensitive topics asked by young people in such a tumultuous time of their lives.
“Trickier questions involved those about how and when to make big decisions, such as having sex or dealing with relationships including partners, friends and parents.” she says.
“It was difficult to try to allay or address anxiety about changing bodies and worries about periods, knowing these anxieties were common but also really wanting to be reassuring.”
A lot has changed since I was growing up reading Dolly Doctor in the early and mid 2000s. There are perennial issues that young people have always dealt with, but with the introduction of new technology and other cultural pressures, it’s a whole new ballgame.
Imagine everything we went through as adolescents but throw Snapchat, Instagram, WhatsApp, Kik and Tik Tok in the mix. Yes, I had to Google half of those and no, I still don’t understand what they are.
“The generic questions about puberty, including sexual feelings, friendships and relationships really didn’t change. What changed was more focus on genitals for example pubic hair removal and more explicit questions about sex. Because Dolly readers were mostly young, and most had not had sex yet, the focus was more on their bodies. But for those who were beginning to embark on relationships involving sex, later on there were more questions about porn than in the early years.”
My first experiences with the sealed section were at my cousin's house. I was still in the Total Girl magazine phase, but my older cousin had a stack of Dolly mags in her room. When she was out my sister and I would sneak in and skip straight to Dolly Doctor. It felt scandalous.
When I finally graduated to Dolly mag, the only thing more important than a Q&A with the latest Home and Away hottie was tearing open that alluring sealed section. It felt like I was doing something wrong, and there was almost a sense of shame in reading them. We would giggle at the questions, but secretly we all wanted to know the answers. It was kind of embarrassing to be curious and to admit we didn't already know everything, and I think this shows just how necessary having platforms for young people to seek out this type of information is.
Submarine (2010). Image via Tumblr
Melissa says, “Integrating comprehensive sex ed into mainstream thinking and learning is a good start. Helping parents feel more comfortable about discussing sex and even if it’s guiding their adolescents towards other sources of advice.
Being able to discuss people’s fears openly including fears of young people having sex, homophobia and transphobia without hype and judgement. Social media allows many of these taboos to be broken but can also fuel fear and hate.”
Not only is there this sense of awkwardness when you’re a teenager, but also as an adult trying to navigate how to communicate with much younger people. There’s a lot of tension around adolescents because they're teetering in between childhood and adulthood and it feels like nobody quite knows how to relate.
Melissa says, “I think it’s always good to start with reflecting on yourself and your own adolescence. That can be traumatic for some, and most people I ask (including myself) say they wouldn’t really want to go back to those years, especially those early to mid adolescent years when we are so self-conscious. I think everyone can empathise because we’ve all been there. Empathy is a good place to start. But I also explain to adults that emerging autonomy, challenging adult ideas, starting to take risks–these are generally healthy and essential to become a fully grown person who can function in the world.”
“Role modelling good communication with teenagers is really key. Listen to them—young people are so creative, they think so much, they ponder and challenge ideas. We just have to give them space to do so and feel privileged when they share that with us.”
Image cred: @cecile_hoodie
The extent of sex education for me in high school was watching a video by an ex-footballer who had found god and “renewed” his virginity. He explained that we are all like beautiful flowers and each time we have sex outside of marriage a petal falls off—and all that’s left is a dead stick.
Needless to say, the analogy didn’t effectively educate or empower any of us to make healthy decisions. And only now that I’m a certified unmarried dead stick myself, I can see just how damaging these kinds of messages are for young people.
I asked Melissa what she would do if she had the power to completely overhaul the sex education program in Australia.
“I’d teach pre-service teachers to understand sexuality and how central it is to the human experience and why it matters so much in adolescence. I’d ensure teachers graduate with confidence and comfort discussing basic stuff around feelings and communication and to feel less awkward themselves about sex, reducing the hype and just making it part of the ordinary experience.”
“Sex education needs to talk about pleasure, diversity, bodies, consent and respect–as well as the health aspects like protecting from unwanted consequences. I would involve young people in being critics of what they’re being taught by checking in with what they want to know.”
Today, Melissa works with The Australian Association of Adolescent Health, a national NGO whose vision is to bring young people and health professionals together to promote the health and wellbeing of young people in Australia.
“It’s a big vision.” says Melissa, “So we try and set tangible objectives such as contributing to policy discussion, publishing academic position papers, publishing shorter position statements in response to policy, and holding an annual conference to bring people together to showcase research or programs."
“AAAH has been focusing on issues such as health services, sex education policy and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health. We recognise that mental health is a major burden for young people, but so are issues like chronic illness and the need for good transition health care (from children’s to adult services). We have a strong ethos of social justice and want to see more health equity particularly for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people, and also for the many groups who are marginalised such as sexually and gender diverse young people, asylum seekers, homeless youth.”
From protesting against climate change to championing diversity and leading political activism, young people are really having a moment. It feels like teenagers are becoming more autonomous and understood than ever before.
“I think we’re at the start of something.” says Melissa. “It’s really wonderful.”
We may have been embarrassed to admit we were curious, but when it comes to health knowledge is power, and Melissa Kang empowered countless Australian teens for over 20 years by answering our most personal questions.
A final piece of Dolly Doctor advice?
“There’s no such thing as a silly question. Adolescence opens our minds to change like nothing else ever will so ask, seek, be curious.”
AAAH is a public company limited by guarantee and is membership based and has an elected board of directors– so the organisation is what its members want it to be. AAAH welcomes young people (12 – 25 years) to join for FREE and professionals aged 26 and over to join for a modest annual membership fee. See more here.
About Arabella Peterson:
Arabella is a freelance writer and content creator from Sydney. She cofounded The Ladies Network, a multifaceted platform for women in the creative industries where she was the editor-in-chief. Since then she has worked as a freelance writer, creative consultant and marketing specialist with the odd modelling gig on the side (on this very website, in fact). She is particularly interested in the intersection of fashion, feminism and environmentalism; specifically supporting local brands and sustainable practices and she loves exploring culture, art and fascinating people. She also cohosts a podcast about Adam Sandler, is obsessed with horror films and loves a good game of Dungeons and Dragons. Follow Arabella on Instagram: @arabella_peterson