Library-borrowed copies of Dolly magazine offered a much-loved window to the world of beauty, fashion and budding sexuality. But, beyond the model searches and sealed sections, they were also tinged with feelings of solidarity and shame. By Clem Bastow.

Library learning with ‘Dolly’

‘Dolly’ magazines, circa the late 1990s, in the State Library of Victoria.
‘Dolly’ magazines, circa the late 1990s, in the State Library of Victoria.

There are certain things – moments, feelings, dilemmas – that are so hyper-specific to the experience of growing up poor they must border on incomprehensible to those whose adolescence was flush with cash. 

Here’s one of mine: as a teen, I would borrow Dolly and Seventeen magazines from the library.

That is, in itself, no doubt an alien notion to some, but hold on, I’m not there yet. I’d borrow those teen magazines and occasionally come upon the holy grail of an unopened “sealed section”. These supplements, of 10 or so pages, typically contained racy information about sex – how to put a condom on a banana! – or less racy but potentially embarrassing lessons about periods or vaginas – they all look different!

Whether it was sexy or educational, the sealed section presented a unique dilemma to the library-card-carrying teen. Not wanting to rob the next borrower of the excitement of ripping open those closed pages, I’d leave it intact, and so would the next considerate borrower, and the next borrower, until months had passed and none of us had any idea what wonders the “Sex Extra! Everything Every Girl’s Gotta Know!” held.

Imagine, I would think, having the cash to just tear open any sealed section you damn well wanted. Then, in the same breath, I would chastise myself for engaging in such unbridled capitalist thinking. We, the poor Dolly-borrowers, were living life right, even if it meant we never did get the answers to those sex questions we were afraid to ask.

The same was true for the perfume samples held within the pages of these magazines. Those strips of scented cardboard remained unrubbed by local wrists, lending the library’s periodicals the heady scent of Australis Waterberry body spray – an olfactory memory I chase to this day, like a boomer trying to remember Woodstock.

When other teens would enter the library periodicals section and head for those hallowed shelves, we’d share a nod of recognition that was equal parts “wait until you see the Callan Mulvey tearout poster” and “Ah, you too?” In reality, we weren’t saving much by borrowing Dolly – $3.60 a month, if memory serves – but those flimsy pages were imbued with a sense of camaraderie, pawed by the busy fingertips of teens already familiar with the vagaries of Centrelink’s family means testing.

These borrowed magazines were a site of intense emotion. Beyond the universal “teen girl” experience of reading them, and discovering which hunks were deemed most “babelicious” by the Dolly editorial staff circa 1997, they were also laced with a feeling I would later come to acknowledge as shame.

I read these magazines in the safety of either the library or my own bedroom because I imagined the experience of a months-old barcoded and contact-wrapped Dolly slipping out of my backpack would be akin to the time I wore no-name zebra-print jeans to free-dress day and Liza sneered at me to “go back to the zoo”. I retaliated in the impotent manner of many poor people throughout history, by drawing devil horns on her photo in the yearbook. 

Young people may lack the vocabulary to discuss class but they are keenly aware of it – just rewatch Howard Deutch and John Hughes’s heroic Pretty in Pink, or return to the skin-crawling relatability of ABC’s sorely missed Heartbreak High. By the time I owned the “white babydoll T-shirt and black shoestring strap dress” combo we’d all read about in Dolly, it was months after the trend had passed. I was so proud of my outfit – a Christmas gift – but knew I was hopelessly out of date, just like all of my borrowed teen mags.

When I got a job shelling peas in the local fruit shop at the tender age of 16-and-a-bit, buying my own teen magazines became a mission. Now I, too, would have towering piles of Dolly and Girlfriend magazines next to my bed! I would shop at the real Sportsgirl, not the Richmond outlet store on Bridge Road!

As I grew older and began to earn more money, a strange cognitive dissonance emerged around libraries – namely, who needs ’em? Books became like glossy magazines, bought and then forgotten about. “To-read” piles stretched like little towers to my ceiling. Things that once upon a time I would have requested, borrowed, discovered I didn’t especially enjoy, and returned to the chute, were now claims on my tax return. So committed was I to this new life of Being Able to Afford My Own Books, that I didn’t set foot in a library for nearly a decade.

Of all the places I expected my experience to be reflected back at me, the online arm of venerable humour magazine Cracked wasn’t one of them, but so it was reading John Cheese’s – probably not his real name – towering screed, “The 5 Stupidest Habits You Develop Growing Up Poor”. In the piece, Cheese wrote, “Have you heard those stories about lottery winners who are bankrupt within a year or two, despite winning millions? That’s because they can’t turn that off. They can’t shake the idea that the money is perishable.”

When, five or so years ago, I eventually did return to the library during a downturn in the income streams I’d taken for granted, my reaction was not unlike a Hollywood movie in which a time traveller or alien giddily discovers contemporary human existence. I rushed from shelf to shelf, grabbing glossy photo books and obscure novels and guides to mediaeval embroidery with the enthusiasm of a Supermarket Sweep contestant. Somewhere, in my determination to escape the threadbare realities of a creative life, I had forgotten there was a place you could get books free.

Talking about money, and especially about being bad with it, is one of life’s greatest embarrassments – though I suspect those born into wealth don’t share this stance, at least if the loud phone conversations you hear around the top end of Collins Street are any indication. In the minds of many, the inability to budget, to save and to spend frugally are not just bad habits, they are character flaws. There is a flip side, too: mindful frugality, “zero waste”, joyful uncluttering and other zeitgeisty downsizing trends, which might feel bracing to those who’ve never wanted for much but when you’ve grown up poor or been hard-up, they feel like punishments.

Perhaps there is, like Sliding Doors, an alternative reality in which 16-year-old Clem didn’t run across the road to the newsagent every Saturday morning to burn through those little yellow seed envelopes of cash earned part-time at the fruit shop, and in which that exact scenario doesn’t still haunt my dreams. If there was a Dolly sealed section about budgeting in those library magazines, well, it also stayed unopened – but understanding one’s fractious relationship with money does not have to mean judging it unnecessarily.

It has taken some time, but I have learnt to infuse the experience of, say, market shopping on the “chuckout” tables with the thrill of the hunt rather than the crushing sense of inevitability. It’s time for the workers to reclaim lifestyle tips such as “bring your own lunch!” from the Gwyneths and Petes of the world. We invented #minimalism. 

Maybe it’s the slow approach of middle age, but I now look back on those teen-magazine-borrowing days and no longer feel shame. Instead, I have reconnected with the very thing that makes those glossy rags such intoxicating reading – hope. A cynic might call what teen magazines peddle something different, but there’s a hopefulness and optimism in teen magazines that is all about imagining how glamorous, happy and successful your future will be.

On a recent day out with my mum, we stopped in at a small library, so she could source a book she needed for research that our larger local branch didn’t have. While she talked to the librarian, I drifted around the shelves, eventually ending up in the reading area. Evidently the more things change, the more libraries stay the same: the same warm light filtered through dusty air, the same sense of bookish camaraderie, the same incomprehensible photocopier instructions laminated and stuck to a wall.

Ringing the comfy armchairs were the periodicals, among which Girlfriend magazine was available to borrow – I could have drifted through a temporal rift and emerged in 1997.

It’s true, there’s an added significance to this scene when you consider the state of print media – Girlfriend is one of the last teen magazines standing after Dolly folded in December of 2016; Seventeen shifted to six issues a year, and Teen Vogue has gone digital. But all I could think of standing in that reading room, looking at Selena Gomez stare beatifically from the cover, was of the local teens saving their pocket money by borrowing teen magazines from the library.

I imagined them sitting in the daggy armchairs with Girlfriend and wondering how, as I did, they might replicate this season’s hot Year 11 formal looks with an op-shop visit and some Spotlight haberdashery, and how that creativity born from necessity will come to colour and enrich their life even if they do manage to sleep through economics class.

And, when I could be sure nobody was looking, I placed a hand on Girlfriend as though it was a holy text, and I felt its hope, its promise, and knew that some sealed sections would forever remain closed.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 10, 2018 as "Back issues".

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