20/20 vision: celebrating two decades of Feelgood

20/20 vision: celebrating two decades of Feelgood
From the cover of our June 12, 2009 edition.

Irene Feighan looks back on two decades of Feelgood, from the hotpants diet to guest editors, fertility issues, and reports on the big issues in our lives.

IT seemed counterintuitive at first to open the digital vault housing past editions of Feelgood, when the cut and thrust of journalism is about what’s happening right now or what’s on the horizon. But by delving into our 20-year archive, I uncovered layer after layer of our recent social history, from boom to bust to bounce-back.

Just like fashion, the worlds of health and wellbeing have their trends, all reflected in the pages of Feelgood. It seems strange now, for example, that we published so many articles on weight loss. ‘The hotpants diet’ trilled a headline in 2002. At the time, Kylie Minogue’s bum-skimming hotpants was a huge talking point, so taking our lead from popular culture, we ran a story on how to get a rear just like the Aussie pop star’s.

Our focus in recent years has rightly shifted to health and fitness - but this is not without its limitations. In a recent RTÉ Radio One interview, US author Lionel Shriver spoke about the “commodification” of fitness.

I could only agree with her.

Strong bodies for men and women are the new thin. Books, gyms and online exercise classes, for the most part, promise a toned, lean body if you’re a woman; and a strong, muscular body if you’re a man.

The cult of the six-pack is a relatively recent phenomenon. There was a time when sports stars just wanted to be fit. Now they want to be ripped — like all-action Hollywood stars. Could it be a new religion too?

For our small part, we no longer run stories about quick-fix diets - drop a dress size, get a bikini body etc. Now our focus is on nutrition and healthy eating.

Still, there’s no getting away from the fact that women, and increasingly men, are painfully aware of how their bodies do not measure up to Instagram standard.

Our March 27, 2009 edition, with double mastectomy survivor Emma Hannigan.
Our March 27, 2009 edition, with double mastectomy survivor Emma Hannigan.

SEARCH ENGINES

When we started, people were just as concerned about health and happiness as they are today. At the time, Google was a relative newcomer (it was founded in 1998) so access to research was limited. Instead, we had to rely on press releases from medical journals such as The Lancet which were then picked up by journalists.

While Google and other search engines have democratised access to the latest scientific breakthroughs, there probably has never been a greater need to trawl, curate and interpret the deluge of information they deliver. Every week, Feelgood attempts to do just this through its clearly written and well-researched articles.

There was no Facebook in 2000. The nearest we came to social media was group texts and emails. But within four years, due to the breakthrough work of Mark Zuckerberg et al, the way we communicated with each other changed dramatically. Soon, we were networking and posting pictures and stories about our daily lives online. It’s estimated that 57% of Irish people now use the site.

However, the introduction of the platform and others such as Twitter and Instagram, has brought troubling consequences — trolling, ghosting, bullying, and body shaming.

Regardless, social media has become integral to our daily lives and, for the most part, has brought change for the better.

Mental health, for example, has become a talking pointing, particularly among young sports stars. There are now online programmes, such as IRUPA’s Tackle Your Feelings, to connect with and help young players.

Ray D'Arcy, on our May 8, 2009 front cover, to benefit Fashion Targets Breast Cancer.
Ray D'Arcy, on our May 8, 2009 front cover, to benefit Fashion Targets Breast Cancer.

BIG ISSUES

I’ve looked at almost every lead story we’ve published in 20 years - 1,000 editions in all. Initially, I expected merely to flick through the back editions, but soon it became like looking through the family photo album, with each cover bringing back memories.

Clear themes emerged: dating, sex, fertility, pregnancy, birth, women and work, menopause, men’s health, raising children, smartphones, alcohol and dogs (among my favourite covers).

In 2005 The Irish Examiner published the results of the first national media poll on childcare. It found that women had a one in four chance of continuing to work full-time once they had a baby and a one in four chance of being happy with their child’s creche. More than four in ten said the cost of childcare would prevent them from having additional children. Such was the strength of the public reaction, the findings were discussed in the Dáil chamber.

Feelgood, a member of the steering group, followed up with a special edition, expanding on the themes raised by the survey.

Almost 15 years later, little seems to have changed. Ireland still lags behind all other EU countries when it comes to investment in early years care. Public expenditure in the sector is estimated at 0.2% of GDP, versus the 1.9% GDP invested by Sweden.

20/20 vision: celebrating two decades of Feelgood

For years we ran a special edition on breast cancer during the last week in September to highlight the upcoming awareness month. When we started reporting on the issue, women were often reluctant to talk about their breasts or to check for lumps. So in 2002, we ran what I still consider today to be a limit-pushing cover — a picture of a woman’s upper body with an exposed nipple. (I waited for the complaints to flood in but remarkably none came.)

A seismic shift happened in September 2013 when Majella O’Donnell, who had just started treatment for breast cancer, got her hair shaved off on the Late Late Show. Her aim was to raise awareness and funds for the Irish Cancer — an extraordinary €700,000 as it turned out. Three years later, when she spoke to Feelgood, she had fully recovered but was as committed as ever to breaking the taboo associated with breast cancer.

It’s interesting to track how our coverage of IVF changed over the years, from couples trying to conceive to egg freezing, sperm donation and egg donation.

What’s remarkable is not only the advance of reproductive science but our willingness to speak publicly about it — like June Shannon who we featured on April 10, 2015, when she was 16 weeks pregnant thanks to a donor egg. With great excitement, we went on to introduce her newborn daughter Clodagh on our December 4 cover.

We’ve consistently challenged the ‘strong male’ stereotype, running stories on caring dads, along with ones on plastic surgery, Botox and skincare for men. To mark Father’s Day, we ran a lead story on June 16, 2017, highlighting the pressure on men to skip their two-week entitlement. Introduced in September 2016, during the first three months, 5,013 paternity benefit claims were awarded — yet, in that period, 14,740 babies were born.

From our September 30, 2011 edition: a grate look into the world of vegetarianism.
From our September 30, 2011 edition: a grate look into the world of vegetarianism.

BIG NAMES

Our covers have featured a parade of high-profile people, from Miriam O’Callaghan and Dermot Bannon, to Lucy Kennedy, Neven Maguire and Donal Skehan. Two celebrities went to great lengths for our photographers: Ray D’Arcy who cycled from Donnybrook to Dublin City Centre for our Fashion Targets Breast Cancer photoshoot in 2009; and Sean O’Rourke who last summer fired up his back garden barbie for a feature on men’s innate attraction to cooking over an open flame.

One cover brought me back to what now seems like simpler times. In August 2011, we were running a lead story on men’s willingness to get stuck into the housework. Simon Harris, who at the time was the youngest TD in the Dail, had agreed to be interviewed and photographed.

I phoned Simon and asked if he’d be willing to wear a pair of Marigolds while washing the dishes. He gamely agreed and even came up with a location, a hotel kitchen near Dáil Éireann.

Nine years later, he still has his sleeves rolled up, but this time as Health Minister tasked with tackling the biggest health crisis to hit the country in living memory.

Warrior woman and bestselling author Emma Hannigan appeared no less than three times on our covers. On March 27, 2009, under the headline ‘Will to live’, she posed regally for pictures, flanked by her two young children. Aged 36, she had already undergone a double mastectomy and had her ovaries removed as a result of carrying the BRCA1 gene. The second was on December 12, 2015, for a lighthearted story on getting dressed up for Christmas. The third was on March 1, 2019, to mark the first anniversary of her death and to acknowledge her huge contribution as an advocate for Breast Cancer Ireland.

I spoke to Emma over the phone on a few occasions through the years and there was never the faintest hint of self-pity; she seemed to rise above her determined, recurring cancer.

Cervical cancer campaigner Vicky Phelan, a former guest-editor of ours, on the March 8, 2019 edition.
Cervical cancer campaigner Vicky Phelan, a former guest-editor of ours, on the March 8, 2019 edition.

SPECIAL EDITIONS

I’ve long been a fan of author Marian Keyes. In 2008, I sent her an email asking if she’d like to guest edit an edition of Feelgood with a charity in mind. In an act of great generosity, she agreed to undertake the project. She chose Debbie Deegan’s charity for children, To Russia with Love, for the September 28 cover story. It was a privilege to work with Marian, to witness her sharp, quick mind. What stood out was the depth of her compassion, her understanding that we all struggle in life.

Ten years later, near the end of 2018, I contacted the cervical cancer campaigner Vicky Phelan. She quickly got back to say yes to my request to guest edit a special edition on cervical cancer.

It was a whirlwind of meetings, emails, commissioning and proofing.

There is never time to waste when it comes to this cancer. When caught early, the five-year survival rate for those with invasive cervical cancer is 92%.

Though she had to go to hospital to be treated for a virus halfway through, Vicky insisted the project should go ahead. The edition was published on March 6, 2019, International Women’s Day.

We all know of Vicky as the determined woman who exposed the CervicalCheck scandal, but in person, she’s highly entertaining and a compelling storyteller. There were occasional fleeting references to her terminal condition but I’ve rarely encountered someone so full of life.

Giving birth is one of the most important experiences a woman will have in her lifetime. And what happens in and around the time of birth is critical for the mother and baby.

In 2006, Feelgood joined forces with the Irish Examiner and launched a first nationwide survey of women’s experience of maternity hospitals. What we found was a deep divide between the quality of private and public maternity services.

Women in private care reported receiving ‘more ultrasound scans during pregnancy, more Caesarean sections and fewer emergency interventions during delivery’ than their counterparts in public care. It was an ambitious project, one we hope helped to deepen the conversation about our inequitable two-tier medical system.

The irony that three of the women working on the year-long project, myself included, became pregnant during that time was not lost on us or the team.

I’ve two teenage sons, so the issue of the HPV vaccine for boys is close to my home. When the vaccine was first introduced in 2010 it was for girls only. However, it was only after reading about a campaign in Australia to include boys in the programme, that I realised of course HPV does not discriminate between gender. Some 85% of women and 91% of men with at least one heterosexual partner will contract a HPV infection during their lifetime.

Our cover story on March 15, 2017, titled ‘Jabs for the boys’, ran two years before the Irish HPV programme was rolled out to teenage males. I’d like to think in some way our article helped to build the case for this important development.

Gracing our September 20, 2019 cover: chef Donal Skehan.
Gracing our September 20, 2019 cover: chef Donal Skehan.

GOING ONLINE

Ten years ago, I announced with a flourish that Feelgood was going online. We’d recently uploaded PDFs of editions from the previous six months and were committed to adding new editions two weeks after publication.

It was seen as a groundbreaking move at the time, but with the internet now on tap on our smartphones, the focus has shifted to digital-first.

These days you’ll find new Feelgood articles online every day of the week, some uploaded five days before the print version. But it’s not just on our website you’ll read our stories — they are being promoted and shared across Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, reaching larger audiences than ever before.

In April, I joined with my colleagues on the features desk to create a Friday lifestyle newsletter with a selection of best reads for the weekend. It’s an important precursor of what’s to come.

New web developments this summer will see the growth of web-only content and with it the opportunity to connect directly with readers through questionnaires, surveys and comment sections, giving us the opportunity to hear in realtime what is happening in their lives.

It couldn’t be a better time to be a journalist.

From January 31 of this year: our look at smartphones and their effects.
From January 31 of this year: our look at smartphones and their effects.

BIG PICTURE

A publication is the sum of its parts and from the start, Feelgood has been underpinned by a team of talented and hardworking journalists who often go beyond the call of duty to fill out the picture, from large-scale issues, to deeply personal case histories. The exceptional work of our graphic designers, turning words and pictures into must-read pages, cannot be understated. We live in a visual world with design at the heart of how we consume news and information.

As I write, I’m at home, surrounded by books that have informed and inspired me through the decades. It’s a world away from the busy open-plan office I left just before lockdown was announced in March. (Feelgood has since been running in the main paper on a temporary basis.) But for the first time in months, it’s now safe to leave our home bunkers and connect with the wider world.

As we continue to go flat out to flatten the Covid-19 curve, I believe the need for the empowering and uplifting stories Feelgood publishes, week in, week out, has never been greater.

Long may it thrive.

From February 21, featuring a piece on the rise of sourdough bread and starters.
From February 21, featuring a piece on the rise of sourdough bread and starters.

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