Dolly: A magazine of mixed messages

magazine's readers are 
typically at a sensitive 
stage of development.
WHAT SORT OF EFFECT? Dolly magazine's readers are typically at a sensitive stage of development.

Dolly magazine is a big hit with New Zealand girls, but Angela Pyke wonders about what it is really telling them.

The May issue of girls' magazine Dolly had to be recalled because of a "printing error" which exposed the genitalia of a young model wearing no underwear.

Some retail outlets had the offending image censored with "too rude" stickers.

The magazine's editor used the Dolly website to explain the "long story".

Apparently the area had originally been covered with a spot which had fallen off the page before going to print without anyone noticing.

The explanation was considered dubious based on the article's heading: "Look Closer. Eww! Not that close" and an arrow pointing to the model's crutch with the caption: "Umm . . . we think you forgot something."

Dolly is one of the highest-selling girls' magazines in Australia and New Zealand.

According to its publisher it is "the single most trusted source of information for teenager girls".

While this claim may worry some, it is hardly surprising.

At school, girls are not guaranteed comprehensive sex education.

Some schools focus on safe sex, with little, if any, reference to relationships or abstinence.

Others do not cover abortion or contraception, for religious reasons.

Although friends are a popular source of information, they are not always reliable.

For many, the thought of asking mum or dad's advice is as cringe-worthy as it would be horrifying for their parents to know what their daughters are up to.

The internet risks exposure to pornographic images, particularly when search terms include girls, teen or sex.

Television is likely to bombard them with super-sized breasts framing the faces of male hip-hop artists or dramas and sitcoms offering McSex.

Alternatively, they may see pro-abstinence groups stressing the unreliability of condoms or promotions for National Condom Week.

Add to that youth sexual health specialist Sue Bagshaw's observation that when it comes to sex, girls are feeling more self-pressure than peer pressure – she believes the media are partly responsible by suggesting that everyone is having sex – and it is little wonder girls turn to magazines such as Dolly.

They provide support and relate to readers "on their own level".

They are informative and entertaining, often come with a free gift and contain real-life stories, beauty and fashion advice, the latest celebrity gossip and more importantly, everything a girl needs to know about boys and sex.

But just how helpful are these magazines to the development of girls' sexuality?

The magazines get a lot of flak, usually revolving around their sexualisation of girls, promotion of unrealistic body-image expectations or encouragement of sexual activity.

Counter-arguments are generally along the lines of following already existing fashion trends or satisfying reader demand.

A vicious cycle appears, of editors catering to needs they may be helping to create.

Realistically, most readers would have been exposed to similar if not more sexual material either through other media or first-hand experience.

Perhaps the problem with girls' magazines is the combination of sexual information and entertainment, with the blurring of boundaries between the two.

Sandie Halligan, a locality clinic manager with the Family Planning Association, believes magazines "have the potential to provide valuable learning material but often contain very mixed messages".

Although attracting greater publicity, the sexual ambiguity resulting from Dolly's publication of female genitals is not significantly different from that in other issues of the magazine.

Girls' sexuality is a source of humour, disgust, shame and controversy.

Within a girls' magazine, sexuality is confessed and desired, a source of victimisation and empowerment, and a medical concern of epidemic proportions.

Virginity and homosexuality are variously confessed, celebrated and treated as a "condition" requiring support.

The "sealed" sections about sex, boys and bodies warn readers that the content may shock but contains information they "need to know".

The message here is that sexuality should be hidden, censored and taboo, but also clearly explained and understood.

Girls are warned about paedophilia and predatory school teachers, then told that one of life's "must-have pashes" is with someone "old enough to be your dad" and that the season's fashion trend is "naughty school girl".

Warnings about alcohol increasing sexual vulnerability are accompanied by pictures of intoxicated young celebrities with humorous captions and advice on how to get their look.

Popular celebrities who appear in Dolly magazines include Paris Hilton, renowned both for her promiscuity and decision not to have sex for a year, and Britney Spears, famous for her virginity claims, singing "I'm not that innocent" in an outfit resembling a pornographic school-girl cliche, her kiss with sex-icon Madonna, and publicising the slogan "I'm a virgin but this is an old T-shirt".

Then there is Avril Lavigne, who publicly criticised Britney's sex-symbol status then posed topless for the cover of Blender magazine with the words "Hell yeah, I'm hot" covering her nipples.

And Jessica Alba, known for saying she dislikes playing sexual roles, yet also that "it's fun".

And Keira Knightley who proclaimed she "would love to have tits" and that women should be happy about themselves, whatever their shape or size.

Readers are encouraged to replicate these celebrities.

And not only their hair, clothing and makeup – there are tips on how to imitate their poses, "pashes", lifestyles, speech and music tastes.

However, girls obsessed with imitating celebrities are considered insecure.

Feature articles condemn the sexual objectification of girls through clothing, while fashion pages depict models in sexually suggestive poses and clothes that appear almost to reveal breasts, buttocks and genitals.

A popular advertiser's slogan: "For girls who want it NOW", with the word "it" sometimes replaced with "him".

Girls are encouraged to dress classy, not slutty (as boys' attention should be on the face, not the chest) but always sexy.

A "slightly revealing top" is said to "do the trick".

Adding to the mixture of messages are male-opinion polls on what kind (size) of breasts are most desirable, or advice on what exercises and bras will enhance the visual appearance of the bust so as to appeal to girls' "crushes".

Although these magazines are aimed at teenagers, they are frequently read by younger girls.

Editors must know this, as some fashion advertisements use models who still appear to have their baby teeth.

Some advertisements encourage readers to embrace their childhood with swings, lollipops and "Back to School" hair accessories.

Others promote an adult ideal with slogans such as "Twenty something?", G-strings "to make you feel flirty", and advice on the latest trends in pubic hair waxing (such as a full wax with henna designs or diamantes).

Even what constitutes sex is up for debate.

Sometimes it encompasses intercourse, oral sex, stimulation using hands or rubbing bodies against each other.

Other times, most of these activities are presented as substitutes for sex for those not ready to go "all the way".

Urgent warnings against the dangers of unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections are often combined with humour, irony, or explicit physical and psychological sexual instructions.

These instructions range from positive self-talk, to kissing and caressing so he has a strong erection, to the best brand of lubricant.

Males are stereotyped as possessing rampant sex drives against which girls must exercise restraint.

Yet girls are encouraged to "perve" and "drool" over pictures of them in their underwear.

Especially "bad boys" who apparently have more sex appeal.

Girls are also portrayed as victims of this type of boy.

Magazines such as Dolly encourage girls to be independent and in control of their sexuality.

Suggestions include initiating sex, refusing sex, flirting, insulting and mingling "anywhere and with anyone" in order to secure a "pash" before the end of a party.

Girls are also informed of infections that can be caught from kissing and warned against being promiscuous.

It is impossible to determine the influence girls' magazines have on their sexuality.

However, Dolly readers' messages of support to the editor following the controversy surrounding the May issue suggest a strong sense of loyalty and respect.

If they do influence girls' sexual development, they do so at the crucial, formative time of adolescence.

What is clear is that girls' magazines continue to mix the conflicting messages surrounding sexuality.

As Bagshaw puts it, mixed sexual messages can lead to confusion for both boys and girls.

"Girls say no and mean yes. Boys do not know whether they should read body language or verbal messages," Bagshaw says.

If sexually ambiguous magazines are as important as their publishers claim, girls can hardly be expected to know what they want, let alone the sexual signals they may be sending.

With their magazines positioned and promoted as a popular source of information for girls, it seems some editors are not exercising enough responsibility.

At best, the magazines could be seen to fill the gaps left by other sources of information. At worst, they could be seen to be abusive.

  • Angela Pyke last year completed a masters thesis on the construction of girls' sexuality in Dolly magazine.

  • The Press