If you’re Australian, under 50 and you have a vagina, the words “Dolly Doctor” will elicit a wry smile.
For those visitors to Mamamia who may not have grown up here, no, this is not a weird post about someone who fixes toys.
Dolly Doctor is the name of the advice section in Dolly, a magazine for teenage girls which, before the internet, was one of the few places young girls could access information about their bodies.
Sounds almost quaint now but cast your mind back to a time before Google search, when printed material was the only way to privately find out about……STUFF.
Dolly Doctor was always the first section of the magazine you flicked to (even before the bit where you joyously pulled out the Wham or Hanson poster and practiced kissing it).
Dolly Doctor had all the answers – about boys, embarassing body problems, confusing urges, changing body parts……she was always able to calmly explain everything from the terrifying to the mortifying. She had the wisdom of a parent and the knowledge of someone who had been there but she delivered her advice with the friendliness of a mate.
Above everything else there was the reality factor. Unlike other sexual educators (i.e. you sex ed class or unreliable girlfriends), Dolly Doctor was the only authority figure telling girls what we actually
wanted needed to hear. Even the boys would sneak an informative read.
And not much has changed – or has it?
Meet Dr Melissa Kang. She is the actual Dolly Doctor.
For almost twenty years, she’s been answering questions about sex, bodies and, well, anything that’s deemed embarrassing when you’re a teenage girl.
And today we’re asking her a few more…
MM: So what is it about the Dolly Doctor? And what do you think has made it such a success over the years?
MK: I think “Dolly Doctor” bridges that gap between the great unknown ‘truth’ that adolescents long to know and their desire for connection with a real person who will be able to understand what they’re going through. Their worries are often expressed in such a way that they seem overwhelming, yet they “can’t” talk to a real person (such as a parent, and never an actual doctor!) But there’s a possibility that an entity such as “Dolly Doctor” is real, human, wise or at least knowledgeable, and could provide information and reassurance.
The process of writing to Dolly Doctor is in itself helpful; being able to express one’s concerns in words, put them out there anonymously... alleviates some of that anxiety. Perhaps when Dolly Doctor started in 1970 there were fewer sources of information for teenagers and the magazine provided expert and credible answers to the readers’ questions. Now there’s more information out there than anyone could digest in a hundred lifetimes.
Yet the need to understand and make meaning of what’s happening to your body, mind, feelings and relationships will never change – and part of that process is about revealing your deepest concerns to a stranger who is nevertheless ‘someone’ you know.
Another perspective is that it’s fun to imagine, exaggerate or create a person with a whole bunch of worries. I’ve had adults tell me that they wrote to magazines as teenagers for fun, or got together with some friends and created a great story. There are occasional (but fairly infrequent) questions that seem too far-fetched to be true, but who knows...
MM: How many letters/emails do you think you’ve received over the years?
MK: The number exploded when the internet and email arrived. For the first few years after I started writing for Dolly Doctor (1993) letters were still mailed in – and there were about 70 a month. A few years ago there seemed to be a few hundred a week. Now there are about a hundred a week.
MM: How do you decide which letters get answered and published? Is there a process?
MK: In almost 20 years, I have rarely been the person to select letters for answering. That’s because I’m not on the magazine staff and don’t have access to them (although have always been welcomed to the office and to look at the letters). I also wouldn’t have time to sift through all the questions each month.
Listen to Dr Ginni Mansberg discuss whether or not your vagina 'shrinks' as you get older. Post continues after audio.
So a designated staff member has the task of reading all the emails and selecting questions for me. Every few years I have asked to look at all the letters/questions and actually done some analysis of their content, and I’m happy that what I’m given to answer represents the breadth of questions being asked. Whenever I’ve spoken to the magazine staff or editor about how letters are chosen the process seems perfectly appropriate – a good cross-section of the topics. The questions have also formed the basis of feature articles on a regular basis – so for example, instead of a Q&A format, the magazine might do a whole feature on ‘your vagina’ the covers a range of questions that have come in.
MM: Now that Google is such a go-to resource for teenagers, do people still write to Dolly Doctor? Or does it have the opposite effect - is there more of a need for them to reach out to an authority because all of the information that's freely available?
MK: The rise of the internet seems to have only increased the number of emails. I’ve probably explained why I think this is the case in my first answer.
MM: Has the nature of teens’ questions changed in the years since you started writing?
MK: Yes and no. The most frequent questions are still about changes – physical, emotional and social. The questions are more explicit – readers use more technical or anatomically correct language (which I see as a sign of being better informed), and questions about sex are more involved and detailed.
MM: Did the lack of knowledge from some readers ever concern you?
MK: Yes – I feel for readers who don’t know basic body bits, how their bodies work and who seem uncertain about who to turn to.
MM: Are there any questions you still remember?
MK: I have a bad memory for detail so I can’t remember the exact questions... but I remember one or two questions about ‘bits’ in ‘private parts’ that I just couldn’t work out! I suppose the vulva and vagina are mysterious places still for many women... and trying to describe something like a lump or a flap or a ‘bit’ is hard to do and hard to figure out. I also remember reading very long questions – ones that are too long to publish – that tell a story, they’re often poignant and quite poetic.
MM: Is there such a thing as 'normal' when it comes to being a teenager?
MK: Well that can be a dilemma for me. In the scientific world there is always a ‘normal range’ or ‘normative behaviour’. The absolutely most common question is about whether a reader’s growth and development is normal or not. And we have decades of research looking at the range of ages during which puberty starts and finishes.
So if a 15-year-old girl doesn’t have her periods yet, I do want to reassure her that it’s probably ‘normal’ (depending on a few other factors... of course!) And if she’s 17 without her periods I want to encourage her to get it checked. Same with boys who are waiting to be able to shave, or talk in a deeper voice. It’s also true for the great diversity of breast and penis size, pubic hair colour and length, menstrual cycles, sexual fantasies and feelings and attractions... and so in fact is the preoccupation and self-consciousness that most readers express – it’s part of the adolescent experience. How to be reassuring and ‘normalise’ the experience without creating a dichotomy between what’s normal and what isn’t?
When it comes to sexual feelings and behaviour it gets trickier sometimes. It’s important to draw the line between what’s OK and what’s not rather than what’s ‘normal’. It can become a value judgement – feeling safe is OK, not feeling safe isn’t. Lack of respect is not OK, being intentionally hurtful or abusive is not OK. Getting information to make decisions is good – going in blind is not so good. Communicating (with friends/partners/parents) is good but not feeling able to communicate is probably more common.
MM: Did you ever receive a letter than needed more than the allocated word-limit for an answer?
What do you do in that case? And what happens if it comes from an anonymous user?
MK: The letters are nearly always anonymous – and they are to me, as I receive them second hand from the magazine staff. Often the questions that require a longer answer are those that are difficult to explain technically – a recent example was trying to explain the differences between herpes types 1 and 2. The magazine over the years has given me more freedom to vary word length according to what’s needed to answer the question.
MM: These days, do you ever come across questions you’ve never been asked before?
MK: In terms of broad themes or topics – probably no. But I’ve never been able to copy and paste an answer, because each question is slightly different from the last one.
What are you memories of Dolly Doctor? Have you got a question? *Eyebrow wiggle*