ELLE Australia|June/July 2020
In 1929, it was reported that the American advice columnist Elizabeth Gilmer was earning more than the President of the United States. Gilmer – or Dorothy Dix as she was known to her legion of disciples – had not only managed to convince people to let her air their dirty laundry in print, but also managed to spin their secrets into gold throughout the worst years of the Great Depression.
Nearly 100 years later, not only has the idea of sourcing advice from a stranger not gone away, but the agony aunt has grown and morphed into a strange beast that has torn herself from the pages of teenage-girl magazines and found strength online. It’s so deliciously voyeuristic to read about the spectrum of human problems that online publications, forums, podcasts, videos and Instagram feeds have become treasure troves of people seeking out and dishing out advice for the most insane, outrageous, sad or relatable problems you’ve ever heard.
But the thing is, finding the right person to ask has become a problem in itself. When we wrote into a magazine’s advice column, we knew that person had put themselves in a position where they wanted to be asked, and we understood whether or not they were qualified to answer certain types of questions. Sliding into an influencer’s DMs to ask for their help is risky business. Not only are qualifications fuzzy (there’s a difference between a nutritionist and a dietitian, or a coach and a therapist), but why are we so sure they want to be bombarded with our problems in the first place?
Most women who grew up in Australia in the ’90s will remember Dolly Doctor. So many post-school afternoons were spent with girlfriends huddled around a crumpled copy of the magazine, laughing at the ridiculousness of some of the questions, but secretly feeling relief that someone else had asked what you had been thinking. For 23 years, Melissa Kang was the woman behind Dolly Doctor, answering questions from tweens and teens about puberty. “It wasn’t just about the physical changes, it was also the emotional side of things and the anxiety about what was happening to their bodies and their relationships – a lot of questions about friendship and crushes and dating, and the associated distress,” Kang recalls. “They were often about pubic hair and boobs, but in the context of anxiety.”
In the UK, teens had Shout magazine, where Laura Brown and her team answered similar questions. “Teenage girls wrote in about relationships, friendships, body worries and the age-old problems of periods, dating, parents and bullying,” she says. “Every reader who included a stamped addressed envelope was guaranteed a personal reply.”
Pre-internet, these advice columns were the safe and logical place to look for help and reassurance that you weren’t alone. That columns like these were so popular in our teenage years might go some way to explain the prevalence of online advice columns that deal with our adult problems.
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