• A cover of teen magazine Dolly. (Dolly)Source: Dolly
For those who grew up in immigrant homes, scanning for sex-ed info from the grapevine or through the pages of Dolly magazine was part of coming-of-age.
By
Sarah Malik

3 Sep 2020 - 9:04 AM  UPDATED 3 Sep 2020 - 9:06 AM

Aliya Ahmad spent her childhood living in different parts of the world from Vietnam to the Middle East. But when her family would return for pit stops to Australia, she knew what she had to do.

She would stock up on her favourite read - the Australian teen girl magazine Dolly. Armed with the contraband in her carry-on luggage she read it surreptitiously under the plane blankets. 

She particularly relished Dolly Doctor - the section of the magazine fielding questions from young girls on periods, sticky emissions, sprouting breasts and other puberty related worries, and the occasional special secret 'sealed' section of the magazine, featuring more juicy talk on everything from sex, masturbation and contraception.

The 26-year-old still remembers the thrill of this moment and how much it shaped her as a pre-teen. Her parents encouraged her to read and were happily blase at the content of the sealed section. 

"I don't think they fully knew what the sealed Dolly section was (without realising the real reason I bought it was the sealed section)."

"I used to love to read, they were happy for me to read. I don't think they fully knew what the sealed Dolly section was (without realising the real reason I bought it was the sealed section)," she laughs. 

"This was before the internet, so we took whatever we could get really!" 

While Ahmad's family were generally open and relaxed, she says like many Muslim Pakistani families, conversation about relationships and sexuality were just not the done thing, with private matters deemed not for family discussion. 

"It's not just dinner time conversation," she said. 

Ahmad still remembers going to the houses of white friends, who would casually tell their parents they were going to their boyfriends. "I was like, 'oh my god what it is this?!'"

Later in Kuwait, as a 15-year-old, she remembers a sex-education talk limited to: "Don't do it. It's haram!" Which spurred her to wait for her next trip to Australia, to stock up. 

"Eventually I came out as queer and I guess I remember thinking it was OK to talk about sexuality, whether that was being straight or queer or gender non-conforming. It created a space [when] there's this big mainstream magazine talking about it. It almost gives you permission to chat about it." 

Ahmad jokes the experience was responsible for her investigative, critical skills in always seeking other sources. "Those forbidden sealed-off pages were almost like a safe online community page. They were the reassurance that people were going through weird, uncomfortable things too. We weren't alone and we were all muddling through adolescence together. 

For Gen X and millennial women, who grew up in first or second generation migrant homes, the idea of scanning for sex-ed information through the grapevine or the now defunct ACP teen magazine - which at one point had a circulation of half a million - was part of coming-of-age. 

Growing up in an Indonesian-Muslim family, ABC journalist Mala Darmadi said talking about sexual health at home was "not on the cards" and magazines like Dolly helped her bridge the gulf in navigating life as a teen. 

"It's an unspoken understanding that you just don't talk to your parents about sex. If I had a crush on a boy I would, but not otherwise."

"It's an unspoken understanding that you just don't talk to your parents about sex. If I had a crush on a boy I would, but not otherwise. Growing up is confusing on its own... Not being able to openly talk about that with my parents was quite difficult [because] you trust your parents more than anyone else." 

Darmadi says often the silence and taboo around discussing sexual health in some communities was due to it being seen as somehow condoning sexual behaviour.

"There's this thing in migrant communities where if you talk about it too much, it's like it's saying it's OK, which is not the case. Open communication about these things is important because it stops things from happening behind people's backs." 

Darmadi said this had a massive impact on the ability of young people to form intimate relationships and on mental health, from being forced to lead a double life to finding themselves in unsafe situations, armed with wrong information. 

She says it was only as an adult, tackling the issue herself, she could openly share her own relationships with her mother. The heart-to-heart led to greater closeness between the pair, with a confession from her mum who admitted how much she struggled to address the topic, because it was something she never did with her own parents in Indonesia.

"It felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders and I could really sit down and connect with my mum. My mum and I are really close, but it was just this one taboo subject we couldn't really talk about," Darmadi said. 

For many interviewees, their own childhood experiences highlighted how differently they want to parent their own kids.

Jenna*, 40, from regional Victoria, whose paternal side of the family hails from Eastern Europe, remembers nicking her older sister's Dolly mags and reading them covertly in the early 90's as a 13-year-old before becoming a loyal monthly customer. 

"I had a conversation with my mum when I was about 19. I had already moved out of home and was back visiting one weekend, flicking through a Cosmo - 'Hey Mum, do you realise we never had the sex talk?' 'Oh really? Would you like to have it now?' And I said, 'Nah, it’s all good. I’ve pretty much figured it out,'" she rejoined with a laugh. 

"Puberty/sex talk wasn’t necessarily taboo but my parents were both really awkward about the whole thing. I think they just tried to scrape by with as minimal conversation as possible."

"Puberty/sex talk wasn’t necessarily taboo but my parents were both really awkward about the whole thing. I think they just tried to scrape by with as minimal conversation as possible."  

Jenna, whose mother is Anglo-Australian, says the reticence was also generational, with cultural shifts in the internet Google-driven modern psychotherapy age favouring a different kind of parent-child dynamic. 

She says she remembered factual sex-ed talks at school, but felt it omitted discussion of the emotional and psycho-social aspect of puberty, sexuality and intimacy. It's an experience, she says, she is loathe to repeat with her own pre-teen daughter. 

While many lamented the whiteness of the magazine, which featured mainly blonde, skinny, beach bikini cover girls, they conceded that like much of the media of the 80's and 90's, it was consumed by young female-identifying girls of colour with a double register.

That is, with an understanding that while the experiences of some of the girls featured in the magazine were  unrelatable to those raised in conservative households, it nevertheless offered a kind of approximate in a landscape with few other options.

"It was a super confusing time, some of the stories I could relate to myself, and other stories were so outrageous, I was like really, is this what people are doing? Am I sort of behind the times?" Ahmad remembers. 

Ironically, racial representation was hidden within the role of the iconic Dolly Doctor herself, with Asian-Australian GP Melissa Kang later revealed as the anonymous expert behind the scenes.

Kang told the ABC in 2018, the 23 years she spent answering questions for the magazine which folded in 2016,  reminded her how anxiety-inspiring being an adolescent had been. She said she herself came from a generation where parents didn't talk to children about growing up, going through puberty and becoming a sexual being.

"I remember my mother taking me along to one of those film nights at school about puberty and periods and then not being able to look me in the eye afterwards. That's the only education I ever got apart from Dolly magazine," she told the ABC. 

"Every single month when I wrote for Dolly I would have loved to give one great big collective hug because of the angst that was expressed."

Sheila Ngoc Pham said she was so obsessed with Dolly she even did a week of work experience at the magazine in 1996.

"I grew up in a conservative Vietnamese family and talking about sex was a definite no-go zone, so naturally I turned to Dolly for information," Pham said.

Pham recalls being a high-schooler, traipsing from Bankstown in western Sydney to ACP magazine headquarters in the city, where she found that work experience girls were in charge of choosing the letters that made it to Dolly Doctor. 

"Looking back it was probably one of the first things I ever did which actually made me feel cool," she said. 

Sarah Malik is a Walkley-award winning journalist and SBS presenter. You can follow her on Twitter @sarahbmalikFacebook or Instagram. Her work covers migration, feminism, domestic violence, representation and cultural diversity. To contact her for engagements, see her website. 

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