Heidi Emmerling, RDH, MA
I often see parallels between struggles in the feminist movement and the political struggles dental hygienists face. In Moving Beyond Words, Gloria Steinem writes that ever since Ladies Magazine debuted in 1828, editorial copy directed at women has been enforced by something other than their interests. "Husbands rest assured," wrote Editor Sarah Josepha Hale, "that nothing found in these pages shall cause [their wives] to be less assiduous in preparing for his reception or encourage her to `usurp station` or encroach upon prerogatives of men."
The parallel here screams at me. Most dental hygiene magazines speak to the traditional, clinical hygienist and attempt to preserve the status quo. This is not surprising. Many hygiene publications are published by the same publishers who produce literature for other aspects of the profession, such as dentists. Therefore, the interests of dentists and advertisers often control some of our favorite professional magazines.
Before I rail on the editors and publishers, permit me to insert this disclaimer. My purpose is to look at our literature through a different lens, to make us more critical readers, and to perhaps change the system, not to blame the people working within it. I am more than aware that editors work very hard to get quality manuscripts. However, writers submit articles that make some of us cringe. I certainly am guilty of being in such a position. I cringe when I read one of my old articles, such as, "Mom, career or both." This article was published in the June 1995 issue of RDH. Two years later, the article strikes me as being one of those pieces that lulls us into complacency. Such writing makes us feel "oh so happy" to be in a profession that allows us to be what our so-called "real" job is: Mommies.
At the time, I was inspired to write it. Now I wish I had not. This was the "happy" genre readers were accustomed to reading and publishers were accustomed to publishing. Whichever influences the other most is debatable. In recent years, even months, I have read articles in hygiene publications that:
- Extol the benefits of being able to work part time.
- Praise temp employment agencies for not hiring hygienists with "ugly" teeth.
- Tell us how to be more productive.
- Explain how to be a better team player.
- Give us reasons why politics and organized dental hygiene are bad for us.
Considering the amount of mail and phone calls I have received, I can say with absolute sincerity that there is an immense number of hygienists out there whose views are unheard and whose images are unseen in other hygiene publications. Sure, not everyone is interested in reading hard news about political scandals, but I would like to see our publications make a stronger attempt to address the differing views of our profession.
The hygienist we see on the covers or in the ads is always female, beautiful, perky, and subordinate. Her utmost interest is entering a marriage and having children, thereby retiring from hygiene altogether or cutting back to either working part-time or as a temp. For some, this is an "appropriate" mold - be cute, have 2.2 children. And, yes, being able to work part-time and make good money are some of the wonderful benefits to carrying out that dream.
This image, though, works for organized dentistry because it can argue that hygienists, after all, are not really professionals. Organized dentistry asserts that all hygienists want to do is work part-time for a few years until they settle down with Mr. Right and start raising a family. Therefore, they reason, the pool of hygienists is shrinking faster than educational institutions can produce them. Consequently, we have a shortage. Thus, we need to pump out more hygienists ... and make them cute.
But look around. How many hygienists do you really know that fit this stereotypical image? We see many veteran hygienists who have not fled the operatory to have kids, hygienists who have no interest in being married, single moms who work full-time to support a family, and male hygienists. There are competent hygienists with crowded teeth or missing canines. There are hygienists who are size 16 plus. There are many hygienists who wish to practice in alternative settings, apart from the restrictions faced in traditional clinical private practice.
In short, hygienists are not cookie-cutter Stepford wives. We are varied in our looks, our race, our gender, our age, our interests. Our publications do not do enough to address this diversity in our profession.
How much do ads influence the message?
Being controlled by advertisers is another similarity between women`s magazines and professional publications. The more publications rely on advertising dollars, the more advertorial copy and editorial extensions of advertising disguised as articles we will be exposed to. When was the last time we read about unfair labor practices in a major dental manufacturing corporation? A dangerous ingredient in a product we use? A dental product that doesn`t work as advertised?
Instead, we read words written by columnists and authors (as well as listen to corporate-sponsored speakers) who are either dentists, dentists` spouses, or somehow tied to advertisers either via a book in print, a research associate, or a public relations person. If the author is not directly tied to a corporation, frequently the topic is. Sometimes I wonder if I`m reading magazines or catalogues.
Granted, some of the most knowledgeable resources in dentistry come from the manufacturing sector. Companies have spent millions of dollars on research and training personnel. But when they have an indirect relationship with a magazine, this question will almost always linger with the reader: How much bias? The burden falls on the reader to determine what is good information and what is a sales pitch.
Advertisers` control over the editorial content in consumer publications has become so institutionalized that it is sometimes written into "insertion orders" or dictated to ad salespeople as official policy. Many advertisers mandate where their ads are placed. Many stipulate that their products either:
- Not be placed in any issue with "controversial" topics - abortion or gun control, for example.
- Be adjacent to complementary copy - beauty tips, for example.
With these orders placed on editors of women`s magazines, it is not difficult to imagine what we might not be reading in professional publications. Okay, so it`s not a crime for advertisers to select where they want to advertise. Again, though, a question looms: Do advertisers unfairly influence editorial content of our professional publications too?
Do we pay to have a voice?
I maintain that our hygiene publications would look and sound much different if they were not also publishers of dental literature and if they were supported more by reader subscription rather than paid for entirely by advertisers. We would certainly have to put our money where our mouths are, so to speak. See, the problem is some publishers think that hygienists are not willing to pay for independent voices in hygiene publications. They tell us that it is good for advertisers to foot the expense in order to get widespread dissemination of information to us. But, as is so often the case, we may be getting exactly what we pay for - or, in this case, what we don`t pay for.
Consider the following actions:
- Complain directly to presidents of companies whose ads are surrounded by editorial payoffs, as well as praise those that support worthwhile articles or any unrelated editorial.
- Send copies of those complaining or praising letters to corporate owners of professional publications, with cover notes stating a willingness to pay more for magazines with editorial content that isn`t just an extension of ads, but nothing for "catalogues." Some readers have tried such innovative techniques as returning magazines to the publisher, postage due, or scrawling "advertising" across all editorial extensions of ads.
Criticizing the dentist-dominated oral health-care system and the ad-dominated media is similar to criticizing male-dominated marriages. All make some people happy and all seem free as long as your wishes happen to fall within their traditional boundaries. Making more equal marital laws alleviates the suffering of all. Changing restrictive practice acts works the same way for hygienists. Opportunities are opened up for the profession. It is time for the professional media to become more open and diverse in its portrayal of hygienists. The writing of articles in these publications needs to reflect the maturation of the profession from a diversion between high school and marriage into a professional occupation that draws upon the efforts of many autonomous adults.
- Steinem, Gloria. Moving Beyond Words. Simon & Schuster: New York. 1994.
Heidi Emmerling, RDH, MA, is a consulting editor for RDH, a writer, speaker, and clinician from Sparks, Nevada. Her e-mail address is [email protected].