TIME feminism

This May Have Been the Best Year for Women Since the Dawn of Time

2014 MTV Video Music Awards - Fixed Show
Beyoncé performs onstage at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards at the Forum in Inglewood, Calif., on Aug. 24, 2014 Jason LaVeris—FilmMagic

But there's a long way to go

It’s the end of the year, which means ’tis the season for grandiose hyperbole. So let’s go there: since the dinosaurs roamed, since the pyramids were built, since the locomotive was invented, there has never been a better year for women than 2014.

That doesn’t mean things were great for all American women in 2014. Actually, a lot of things really sucked. But “not great, and never been better” is the rallying cry of a movement in progress, and that’s where women have been this year.

Think about it. Frozen, a sister-love story, became the highest-grossing animated film of all time. While performing songs from her 2013 surprise album, Beyoncé quoted Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s thoughts on feminism in front of a live audience at this year’s VMAs. For the first time ever, a woman (Maryam Mirzakhani, a Stanford professor) won the prestigious Fields Medal for Mathematics, widely considered the “Nobel Prize” of math. Janet Yellen became the first female chair of the Federal Reserve; GM and American Apparel both got female CEOS; and Apple and Facebook offered to cover elective egg freezing for their employees. A 17-year-old girl became the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

But those are just the victories, and 2014 wasn’t necessarily so important because of all the “firsts” or “bests.” Instead, 2014 was characterized by loud, frustrating, and often unresolved discussions about justice for women that reached an unprecedented volume. We didn’t necessarily “win” any of these battles — and when it comes to debates over sexual assaults, domestic violence and contraceptive coverage, it’s hard to know what “winning” looks like — but we fought them harder and louder than ever before.

Take, for example, the ever thorny issue of sexual assault on college campuses. These assaults have been happening for years, rarely acknowledged and barely addressed. But this year, we’ve gone from whispering about sexual assault to shouting about it. In January, President Obama established a White House task force to protect students from sexual assault, and the spearheaded campaigns like 1 Is 2 Many and Not Alone to raise awareness about campus assault. In May, the Department of Education released a list of universities under investigation for mishandling sexual-assault cases. And in late July, Senators Claire McCaskill (D., Mo.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.) led a bipartisan coalition to introduce the Campus Safety and Accountability Act to reform the way colleges investigate and punish sexual assaults.

And that’s just the government activity. On the ground, students have been staging protests to demand justice (like Emma Sulkowicz at Columbia, who is carrying her mattress around with her until her alleged rapist is expelled). Twitter has become an open platform for survivors to speak out about their experiences using hashtags like #YesAllWomen and #RapeCultureIsWhen. The media missteps this year, from Rolling Stone’s UVA debacle to the Washington Post column in which George Will called rape survival a “coveted status,” have been troubling. But they’ve also sparked larger, louder, online conversations about how we treat sexual-assault survivors than we’ve ever had before.

Have we fixed the problem of sexual assault on campus? Definitely not. Are we making progress? More than ever.

Or look at domestic violence in the NFL. In 2013, there were seven NFL players arrested for domestic violence, down from nine in 2008, according to USA Today’s Player Arrests database (these are the years with the highest concentration of recorded domestic-violence arrests in the NFL, and this is just the women who call the police). Only four NFL players were arrested in 2014 for beating up their wives or girlfriends, but Ray Rice was one of them.

When a video emerged in September that showed Rice punching his then girlfriend Janay Rice in the face, it sparked a massive dialogue about domestic violence and NFL codes of conduct. Ray Rice was suspended indefinitely by the NFL (a suspension that has since been vacated after a successful appeal), and the organization was under so much scrutiny that some were calling for commissioner Roger Goodell to resign. Under increased pressure from feminists and survivors (including some using the hashtag #WhyIStayed), the NFL was forced to finally grapple with a problem it had long tolerated with an uneasy silence. Goodell hired three female advisers — Lisa Friel (a former sex-crimes prosecutor), Jane Randel (co-founder of No More) and Rita Smith (a former executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence) — to help reshape the league’s domestic-violence policy.

Since October, the NFL has announced multiple initiatives, including educating players and their families and updating its personal-conduct policy, in order to address domestic violence in the league. And the social-media response has made it clear that the public is not happy with NFL players beating up women and continuing to play. Even players like Eli Manning and Cris Carter have participated in PSAs to get the public talking about sexual assault.

Has the NFL effectively addressed their problem with domestic violence? Hell no. Has there been progress? More than ever.

Consider Bill Cosby. People had been whispering about the (formerly) beloved comedian’s habit of drugging and raping women for years — there was even a joke on 30 Rock about it five years ago. In 2005, more than 10 anonymous “Jane Doe” victims agreed to testify against Cosby in a lawsuit that was ultimately settled out of court, and even after it was reported in the press, there was little public outrage. But when comedian Hannibal Buress mentioned the rape allegations in a stand-up routine this year, the public finally took the allegations seriously. More than 16 women have come forward to share remarkably similar stories, and many of them say they were drugged before Cosby assaulted them. Despite the years of whispered rumors, it was only in 2014 that Cosby’s reputation as “America’s Dad” started to tarnish.

Do we always take rape victims seriously when they accuse powerful men of assaulting them? Not really. Are we making progress? More than ever.

Yes, a lot of things still sucked for women in 2014. The Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling was a blow to reproductive rights, we still don’t have a comprehensive family-leave policy, and women are still paid less than men for doing the same work.

So 2014 has been a year of setbacks, indignities and outrage. It’s not been great. But it’s better than ever.

TIME women

Why Model Robyn Lawley Is a Role Model for Considering Abortion

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Getty Images

Celebrity pregnancy announcements normally reinforce the idea that motherhood is a woman’s true calling

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We all want to make choices for ourselves. Most women, however, are not afforded that luxury, as every choice, from wardrobe to reproduction, becomes a topic of public discussion.

The scrutiny is multiplied beyond my mathematical comprehension when the woman in question is a celebrity. Looks and decisions are meticulously dissected every time she “steps out” or “flaunts” or “shows off” before image-hungry cameras. One of the tabloid’s favorite pastimes is “womb watch,” guessing which celebrity is pregnant, or has perhaps eaten a large lunch, before wondering when certain celebrities like Jennifer Aniston or Cameron Diaz are planning on children as they’re deemed to be running out of time.

Every celebrity pregnancy announcement is filled with positivity.

We’re told of the immense joy and blessing that pregnancy is, reinforcing the idea that motherhood is a woman’s true calling. Reality often doesn’t look like that, as not every pregnancy is planned and wanted and some women may feel worried or ambivalent about the prospect of children overall.

That’s why Australian model Robyn Lawley’s decision to share her thoughts about an accidental pregnancy is so important to the overall narrative surrounding pregnancy.

Lawley is a 25-year-old pro-choice feminist and successful “plus-size” model who has worked for many mainstream brands like Ralph Lauren so it’s safe to assume that she has financial security; she’s also engaged and has previously discussed having children with her partner. In many ways she is in the best position to have a baby. Nevertheless, Lawley, like many women the world over, had many things to consider before continuing with her pregnancy.

In a recent interview, she revealed: “As soon as I found out I was pregnant, I had to take all options into account, because with a baby, I’ll have to majorly slow down — and I’m very career-driven. That scared me. The reality is many women face a plethora of factors when considering whether to have an abortion. My case is no different.”

It’s very reassuring to hear such a rational and calm consideration of abortion without the hyperbolic discussion of personal tragedy and torment that seem to make up the permissible “good abortion” accounts. That’s not to say that sometimes one account is wrong or better than another but only one is allowed to exist without pro-lifers (anti-choicers, really) reaching for their pitchforks.

Lawley openly acknowledged that one of her biggest worries about pregnancy stemmed from the effects it has on the body saying “one of the biggest [fears] for me was related to my career, which necessarily and perhaps unfortunately relates, at least in part, to my body image.”

Unsurprisingly, the comments on the Daily Mail article, now no longer to be found, called her selfish for worrying about her body and denouncing women in general for not valuing human life. What those commenters fail to consider, besides basic human compassion, is the possible difficulty of returning to work after having a child or affording childcare. Once again, the child’s life is only considered while in utero and the woman is a mere vessel, not a person with life goals beyond children.

What’s most interesting to me about this story is Lawley’s ultimate decision to keep the baby.

No, it’s not in itself shocking, but had she not chosen to disclose the deliberation regarding an abortion, we would never have known. It makes me wonder how many celebrities — and even acquaintances — go through a similar process, later to either announce the joyful pregnancy news or simply keep silent about their decisions.

When Lawley was considering termination she said: “I thought it’d be so easy! I’d just walk in there, and it’d be done so quickly, but then I called them and heard the process and thought this is a serious, full-on thing. I decided then that I wanted to keep the baby.”

I begin to wonder who exactly the “them” in this instance represents because it seems like she wasn’t given the correct information unless her pregnancy was already well under way. Of course, abortion is a medical procedure with associated risks, though it has been found by researchers at University of California, San Francisco in a recent study to be as safe as a colonoscopy with nearly all of the procedures being performed at a doctor’s office or an outpatient clinic — not a hospital. This research would suggest that abortion is actually not a “full-on thing” but a minor and extremely safe procedure.

All this aside, Lawley has made the right choice because it’s the choice that she and she alone is making.

I, personally, am thankful to her for revealing her decision-making process, adding another rational voice to a discussion that often gets seized by individuals with ill intentions and misinformation. Hopefully, in the not too distant future, women will be able to speak openly about such decisions in public without inspiring murderous rage from people who want to police women’s private lives and bodies.

Zhenya Tsenzharyk is a writer and student in London. This article originally appeared on xoJane.com.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Business

How America’s First Self-Made Female Millionaire Built Her Fortune

Madam C.J. Walker Portrait
Madam C.J. Walker (Sarah Breedlove), circa 1914 Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

Dec. 23, 1867: Sarah Breedlove Walker, the first black female millionaire in U.S. history, is born

America’s first black female millionaire — and the first woman of any race to become a self-made millionaire — built an empire from nearly nothing in one of the most spectacular rags-to-riches stories in U.S. history.

When Sarah Breedlove was born on this day, Dec. 23, in 1867, to former slaves on a Louisiana cotton plantation, she had already achieved a milestone as the first of her parents’ five children born into freedom. Still, the odds were heavily stacked against her. Orphaned at 7, married at 14, and widowed at 20, she became a single mother earning $1.50 a day as a washerwoman.

And while her 1919 obituary in the New York Times portrays her meteoric rise to business success as something she simply decided to do one day — “One morning while bending over her wash she suddenly realized that there was no prospect on her meager wage of laying away anything for old age,” the obit casually explains — nothing in her life came easily.

Even the idea that launched her career as an entrepreneur arose out of hardship, although it was likely the least of her worries: In the 1890s, she began losing her hair. After developing a tonic she claimed made her hair grow back “faster than it had even fallen out,” she enlisted the help of her third husband, Charles Joseph Walker, a newspaper sales agent, in harnessing the advertising power of black newspapers to promote her “wonderful hair grower” and a line of products that would give kinky hair a “beautiful silky sheen.”

Doing business as Madam C.J. Walker, she displayed an innate acumen few MBAs could rival. Her talent for advertising was matched by her shrewd sales strategy, which employed a fleet of agents in a Mary Kay-style system that quickly built her fortune — and proved highly lucrative to the sales team as well.

“At a time when unskilled white workers earned about $11 a week, Walker’s agents were making $5 to $15 a day, pioneering a system of multilevel marketing that Walker and her associates perfected for the black market,” wrote Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. in a 1998 story for TIME. “More than any other single businessperson, Walker unveiled the vast economic potential of an African-American economy, even one stifled and suffocating under Jim Crow segregation.”

On her way to the top, Walker burst through several glass ceilings, fighting racism and sexism with competence and confidence.

“I know how to grow hair as well as I know how to grow cotton. I have built my own factory on my own ground,” she once told members of the male-dominated National Negro Business League, who tended to be dismissive of hairdressers, according to Gates.

By the time she died, at 51, it was impossible to dismiss Walker. A generous philanthropist, she donated to scholarship funds, the NAACP, and campaigns to stop lynching. She helped to build a black YMCA in Indianapolis and restore Frederick Douglass’s home in Washington.

And she made a place for herself — literally — among America’s elite entrepreneurs. Her mansion in the tony Westchester village of Irvington was, according to the Times, “one of the show places in the vicinity,” which was saying a lot: The neighborhood was also home to tycoons Jay Gould and John D. Rockefeller.

Read Henry Louis Gates Jr. on Sarah Breedlove Walker: Madam C.J. Walker: Her Crusade

TIME women

I’ve Won a Tony, But I Still Get Announced as Simply the ‘Plus-Size Dancer’

Actress Marissa Jaret Winokur at Brass Ring Awards Dinner 2014 in Beverly Hills, Ca. on Jun. 3, 2014.
Actress Marissa Jaret Winokur at Brass Ring Awards Dinner 2014 in Beverly Hills, Ca. on Jun. 3, 2014. Valerie Macon—Getty Images

"What is it like to be a 'plus-size role model'?"

xojane

I never considered myself “plus-size.” Never. Oh sure, a size 14 was snug, and I was always able to find XL clothes with spandex that worked just fine. Or sometimes, I found those amazing stores that carry XXL or XXXL but sold them in the same section as the “normal clothes,” rather than in the back of the store where the plus-size clothes always live. You know, the place that never gets vacuumed and looks like an explosion of colorful beach cover-ups?

Here’s a quick question: Why do plus-size clothes always have crazy insane colorful large prints? It’s like the designers somehow think, “Oh, that big girl is so gonna want to walk in the room and make sure everyone sees her.” Listen up, plus-size designers, I am here to tell you, “They see us.”

I never really saw myself as plus-size until “Hairspray” opened on Broadway. Playing Tracy Turnblad was the role of a lifetime! It was all my dreams wrapped up in one. I will never forget one of my first interviews about the show. It was on CBS news, and I was sitting across from a very established middle-aged male host. I was so excited I was going to be on TV! I sat during the commercial break putting on new lip gloss and felt so giddy wondering if everyone that I went to high school with was watching.

Then, the interview began.

“Marissa, I have to ask you. What is it like to be a ‘plus-size role model’?” he asked me.

I remember my face getting warm as I blushed and inside I just wanted to scream, “Did you just call me fat?” I don’t remember how I answered that question that day. All I remember is thinking, “Did Jason, a high school boyfriend of mine, just hear that a man called me fat ON TELEVISION? Did everyone hear that?”

Honestly, I wanted to crawl under the chair. I thought to myself, “Tracy Turnblad was a plus-size role model! I’m just the actress playing her! And P.S.: Why did he just call me fat?”

Then every night, outside the stage door of “Hairspray,” young girls of all shapes and sizes would wait for photos or autographs. I would listen to what they were saying and what they weren’t saying. They weren’t saying, “I love your voice you sing so good.” They weren’t saying, “You are the best actress in the world.”

They were saying: “You make me feel so good. You give me hope that I can be an actress when I grow up. We look like sisters. I can’t stop smiling. I cried throughout the whole show. You are my hero.”

What these girls were saying was “You make me feel OK to be me.”

The character I played made them feel like they could get the guy, they could be the leading lady, they were OK! So after the first few months of the show, and thousands of women telling me they felt empowered because of “Hairspray,” a plus-size role model was born.

I didn’t care about the weird passive-aggressive innuendo from that TV reporter. I just thought about those girls and how much they meant to me.

I loved having a platform that sent a healthy message. But I still had this insane inner struggle where secretly I would dream of losing 20 pounds. Not even 5, but 20!

Here’s a secret. In my dressing room, there was a fat suit.

Yes, you read that correctly, a fat suit — for my skinnier understudy. They kept a fat suit in my dressing room so she could be fat like me!

Production didn’t hide it or place it in a trunk under lock and key (where it belonged) — it was proudly displayed in my dressing room. I remember once Liza Minnelli — yes the real Liza Minnelli — came backstage to meet me. She took one look at the fat suit hanging in the room and said, “Oh, I knew you were wearing a fat suit, I didn’t think you were that fat!”

I obviously let her believe I wore the fat suit.

A tightrope walk for me was to want to lose weight while inspiring people to just embrace who they are. I would be doing an interview for a fancy magazine and the reporter would ask me, “How are you so confident?” At the same exact time I would still be hearing that little voice in my head screaming, “Did you just call me fat?”

It wasn’t even the words or the label. It was the assignation of judgment and the undercurrent of superiority that got to me.

I was beginning to wonder, would this same reporter ask Reese Witherspoon why she was so confident? No, of course not. I knew what the question meant. My little voice would ask, “Why is this an OK question?” I would answer in a sweet way but basically I was saying, “Why shouldn’t I be confident? I have a great career, a wonderful boyfriend and a beautiful home.”

And yet still, I wanted to lose 20 pounds.

As life went on, I was so excited to be cast in “Dancing with the Stars” for their sixth season. Once again it was yet another dream role for me. I got to dance with a hot guy, wear sexy dresses, and have amazing hair and make-up! It was, in a word, awesome.

The first announcement of the show went something like this: “The Olympic Gold Medalist, The Football Star, The Oscar Winner and the Plus-Size Dancer.”

That was me. Not the Tony Award-winning actress! The plus-size dancer, I was the plus-size dancer.

I also must note that at this point I had lost the 20 pounds I had wanted to lose for 5 years.

I was actually 30 pounds down from my “Hairspray” days, but “Plus-Size Dancer” was my title and it stuck.

That year, my son was born via surrogate. I am a cancer survivor and could not give birth to my son, but that’s for another story on another day. I remember holding my newborn baby and I was excited when people told me how skinny I looked after just having a child. Just like with Liza Minnelli, I let them believe I gave birth. I am not going to lie, it felt good being praised for looking skinny.

Soon after, I went on a crazy diet. Not the one with magic pills and where you eat only grapefruit (trust me, doesn’t work). It was the crazy diet where you work out 6 hours a day and eat under 1,200 calories every day: no cheat day, no break, no joke!

Now some people will say working out every day and eating 1,200 calories every day is not crazy. It’s healthy and very doable. But for this all-or-nothing girl, it’s CRAZY.

I did it, I was committed! I had just finished shooting the hilariously funny body image rom-com “Muffin Top: A Love Story.” The day we wrapped the film, we shot a scene where I ate a huge piece of chocolate cake, french fries and well, since we were there, a shake as well.

The next morning, after we wrapped “Muffin Top,” I went to the doctor and got some blood work done. My cholesterol was so high that my doctor wanted to start me on medication. I asked him to give me six months to see if through diet and exercise, I could lower my numbers.

Let the diet commence! I don’t even remember the exact year — I want to say it was 2012 — because all I did was work out. Like all the time. I was so in it, and the more I lost the more I wanted to lose. When I started the diet, I was back at my “Hairspray” weight and once I lost the same 30 pounds, the 30 pounds I gained back after “DWTS,” I thought I would be happy!

I wasn’t.

I wanted to lose more and was on such a roll. Then I lost 40 pounds! Then 50 pounds, then — OMG — I lost 60! I lost 60 pounds!

You know when people say they wish they were their wedding weight? Well, I was my junior high weight! I was so skinny and happy! Wait, did I say HAPPY? I wasn’t happy. I felt the same. I always thought Skinny = Happy. Except it doesn’t.

Happy = Happy.

OK, so there I was, a supposedly plus-size role model who lost 60 pounds. There are tons of articles all over the media, quoting me saying, “If I can do it, so can you!” I meant it. I couldn’t believe I lost 60 pounds! But listen, I am sorry to tell you: There was no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

I would be on talk shows and they would show before and after photos of me. Every time, I thought I looked great in the before shot! I mean, I like the “after” shot too, but why pick on the before shot? The before shot was strong and confident, and I looked great! The after shot just looked skinny and well…skinny. I really did lose the weight for health reasons, but it was making me mentally crazy and I lost my breast size in this crazy act of getting skinny and I loved my breasts!

Because skinny does not equal happy, I slowly gained back 20 pounds. I was really down on myself and felt like I was out of control. I went to Fitness Ridge in Utah to try to get skinny again. I thought THIS time if I lost the weight, I’ll be happy. I just hadn’t known how to deal with it before.

While I was there I met amazing women and this may sound full of myself to say — but I only share it because of what it meant to me — these ladies would go on to tell me stories of how I changed their lives at one point or another.

It was these women who finally got through to me.

They would tell me how seeing me on TV inspired them. Watching me dance made them start Zumba classes. I went to all the lectures and really listened. At the age of 41, I heard what I was being told. It’s not just working out and eating right, it’s that, plus the emotional stuff. I never tapped in to the emotional management. I mean, who would? That is the hardest part.

You think not eating cake is hard? Try asking yourself why you are eating the cake?

AHHHHHHH NOW I WANT CAKE!

I left Fitness Ridge and for the first time in my life practiced saying, “I am enough.” It’s about being healthy, not skinny and whatever HEALTHY means to you!

Now, the movie “Muffin Top: A Love Story” I filmed when I was at my peak weight (and I love how I look) is in select theaters and on Video On Demand. It’s all about self-image and female empowerment. Most importantly, it’s funny. I have been to many screenings of the movie and the feedback I always hear is how nice it is to see a woman in a movie who act and look like real women.

I finally understand that no one is calling me fat. They are truly saying, “Thank you for being you.” “Thank you for loving yourself now, not five pounds from now.”

Ten years ago when that reporter first said, “How does it feel to be a plus-size role model?” He wasn’t calling me fat. He was saying, “You are inspirational,” “You are empowering women everywhere.”

I am proud to be a plus-size role model. I am also glad I didn’t listen to my skinny friends when they told me to throw away my fat jeans.

God, they fit good!

Marissa Jaret Winokur is an actress and dancer. Winokur is best known for the role of Tracy Turnblad in the hit Broadway musical Hairspray, a performance for which she won a Tony Award, Drama Desk Award and an Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Actress. This article originally appeared on xoJane.com.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME women

I’m a Body-Positive Feminist and I Had Weight Loss Surgery

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Getty Images

The same philosophy that allowed me to find peace with my fat body also allowed me to make the decision to have weight loss surgery

xojane

OK, so this wasn’t really something that “happened” to me. I made an educated decision about my body and my future.

I have always been fat, and for a long time, I really hated it. I spent more than two decades of my life wishing I would magically wake up “normal.” Until I was in my mid-20s, I didn’t know what it felt like to not wear a heavy cloak of shame and insecurity.

Like so many other fat girls with Internet access, I discovered that body positivity was a thing, and that I could feel good about myself and I didn’t really have to give a fuck about what other people thought. I decided to be happy, regardless of my size. I began identifying as a fat feminist. I actually started feeling okay about my body. I was doing okay and there were people who liked me, even loved me, despite my fatness. At some point, I even started kind of liking myself, and then my fatness became somewhat of a non-issue. Eventually I came to be at peace with my body. It was mine and mine alone, and it was beautiful.

As I moved into my 30s, life happened. I was thriving in a supportive community of folks who embraced me as I was. I got a good job; I found my soul mate; I got engaged. My size was a non-issue, and I was happy.

But I wasn’t healthy. I was on medication to prevent my high blood sugar from turning into diabetes. I slept with a machine attached to my face to keep me breathing at night. I didn’t have the stamina I needed to be able to do my work every day. Polycystic ovary syndrome, which is closely tied to what doctors liked to refer to as my “morbid obesity,” meant I might not be able to have babies, and I was more likely to get diabetes or certain kinds of cancer. Physically, I didn’t feel good. Emotionally, I was at a crossroads.

In short: I could continue not caring about my weight and go about business as usual. Or, I could lose weight. I’d struggled with depression and, yes, even suicidal thoughts in the past, but when I started having health problems, I was at a happy place in my life — and I wanted it to stay that way. I wanted to be my best self, and for me, that didn’t just mean being happy with my physical body, it meant having my physical body be healthy.

My decision to have weight loss surgery was not made lightly. I spent a lot of time trying to reconcile my body-positive politics with my desire to live longer and have babies and be able to walk up the flight of stairs to my office without getting winded. I also spent a lot of time trying to lose weight through more conventional methods, like diet and exercise. My medical conditions made that nearly impossible, and no matter what I did, my health kept declining.

Ultimately, the same philosophy that allowed me to find peace with my fat body also allowed me to make the decision to have weight loss surgery.

I made an educated decision about my body. It was mine, and mine alone.

Yes, weight loss surgery can kill you. And yes, I’m an advocate for health at any size. But, real talk: Being fat was actually, actively killing me. For me, the benefits of weight loss surgery outweighed the risks. Having your guts rearranged is not fun, but overall, my improved quality of life has made this process, albeit difficult, worthwhile.

The experience of losing more than 140 pounds in a very short period of time has been socially and emotionally difficult, too. When you lose weight, everyone starts to pay very close attention to your body. People I barely know now find it appropriate to tell me how happy or impressed they are by my change in appearance, while I often feel judged by the fat-positive community in which I once found comfort and acceptance.

My body was nobody’s business before I had surgery, and it’s nobody’s business now.

For me, weight loss surgery was not an “easy way out.” It was a tool that was available to me, and I made the informed decision to use it to take control of my health. I can’t think of much that’s more empowering — or body positive — than that.

Trisha Harms is a writer, social media strategist, and social justice advocate. This article originally appeared on xoJane.com.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME White House

Barack Obama Holds First Ever All-Women Press Conference

President Barack Obama speaks during his speech to members of the media during his last news conference of the year in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House on Dec. 19, 2014 in Washington.
President Barack Obama speaks during his speech to members of the media during his last news conference of the year in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House on Dec. 19, 2014 in Washington. Alex Wong—Getty Images

The President made a statement without his actions

President Barack Obama’s traditional end-of-year press conference Friday was historic for reasons that had nothing to do with the substance of the president’s comments. All eight of the reporters who questioned Obama were women—and nearly all were print reporters—an apparent first for a formal White House news conference, a venue traditionally dominated by male television correspondents.

“The fact is, there are many women from a variety of news organizations who day-in and day-out do the hard work of covering the President of the United States,” said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, after the event. “As the questioner list started to come together, we realized that we had a unique opportunity to highlight that fact at the President’s closely watched, end of the year news conference.”

The departure was noticed throughout the room, as Obama passed over male reporters in the front row and called on their female colleagues. “This seems unprecedented for a solo White House press conference,” said Towson University Presidency Scholar Martha Joynt Kumar, who tracks interactions between the president and the press corps, noting she does not recall a similar occasion in any previous administration. “It certainly is for Obama.”

The list of those called on:

  • Carrie Budoff Brown, Politico
  • Cheryl Bolen, Bloomberg BNA
  • Julie Pace, Associated Press
  • Lesley Clark, McClatchy
  • Roberta Rampton, Reuters
  • Colleen M. Nelson, Wall Street Journal
  • Juliet Eilperin, Washington Post
  • April Ryan, American Urban Radio

Before the George H.W. Bush White House, it would have been hard to find eight women to ask questions of the president, as there weren’t that many on the beat. Kumar noted that 10 women out of 21 reporters in the first three rows of the briefing room were women, the latest indication that the White House press corps is growing more diverse.

The White House informed the television networks they were unlikely to get questions at the new conference because each had asked the president questions at least twice since the midterm elections.

“It’s amazing for that to happen as that room is filled with a majority men,” said Ryan, who shouted out a question to the president and was acknowledged over questions shouted by male reporters. “I’ve been in one other historic press conference and got a question in the East Room and he called on a number of black reporters and it was amazing to be there. it was saying that maybe this room and this building is trying to reflect society and reflect America.”

In that press conference, on Sept 10, 2010, Obama called on four black reporters out of 12 questioners.

TIME Nigeria

Boko Haram Suspected in Mass Kidnap in Northeast Nigeria

The leader of Nigeria's Islamic extremist group Boko Haram on Oct. 31, 2014.
The leader of Nigeria's Islamic extremist group Boko Haram on Oct. 31, 2014. AP

The latest in a string of abductions

Islamist militants of the group Boko Haram are suspected of abducting at least 100 women and children, and killing nearly three dozen others, from a remote village in northeastern Nigeria.

Gunmen in trucks raided Gumsuri last Friday and staged an attack that ended on Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal reports, citing members of a local vigilante group. Gumsuri is located near Chibok, where 276 schoolgirls were abducted in April. The number of abductions in the new attack varies between news outlets, hovering between more than 100 and above 200.

Mike Omeri, a government spokesman, told TIME that the government is “outraged and deeply saddened by this deplorable act” and said the real number of those abducted isn’t known yet.

“It is impossible to verify the number of those missing at this early stage because it is presumed that many civilians fled during the attack,” he said in a statement. “As soon as government agencies and our local partners have together determined the credible number of missing civilians, we will provide that information to the public.”

The recent raid, the latest in a string of similar abductions in the restive region, comes about two months after the Nigerian government claimed it had reached a cease-fire with Boko Haram and that the group planned to release the schoolgirls. The group’s leader Abubakar Shekau later denied that a deal had been reached and said the girls had already been married off.

Read next: Girls Who Escaped Boko Haram Tell of Horrors in Captivity

TIME Parenting

My Breasts, My Choice: Why I’m Nursing My Three-Year-Old

mother-holding-baby
Getty Images

Talk about extended nursing (what we in the U.S. consider breastfeeding any child past the somehow magic age of one) and the crazy comes out

xojane

At three years old, my middle son wakes up as a different animal every morning. He tells me which by calling my name: “Mama Dragon,” he says, or “Mama Bear,” or “Mama Owl.” He calls me by name, always, and asks the same question: “Mama Stingray,” he says, “I have mama milk?”

“Not until after breakfast,” I tell him. “You know the rule. Breakfast first, then mama milk, or else you don’t eat your breakfast.”

Sometimes he accepts this easily, wolfs down some Gorilla Munch, and forgets about milk. Sometimes he gets angry, yells and insists he wants mama milk right now. Sometimes he cries and pouts so badly I write a note: MAMA MILK AFTER BREAKFAST, I spell out on a Post-it. He can’t read, but he clutches it like a ticket, this written assurance that he will, indeed, get the cuddles and milk he needs.

Yes, needs.

Baby Bear is three years old, and Baby Bear still needs to nurse. I’m OK with that and have even encouraged it. Not forced — encouraged. And I’m happy with it.

Talk about extended nursing — what we in the U.S. consider breastfeeding any child past the somehow magic age of one — and the crazy comes out of the woodwork.

“Weird” is the nicest word some commenters muster. Extended nursing has been likened to sexual abuse, to a power play in the mommy wars, to a sick desire to keep a child a baby. People claim it’s for the mother’s benefit, that children are forced to keep nursing, that it’s all about the mom and not about the child.

When I told my mother-in-law I planned to nurse my first son until he chose to wean, she could only manage to splutter, “But how do you expect him to go to preschool?”

Mostly, though, our collective discomfort with extended nursing comes from our persistent sexualization of breasts. Despite legal protections, hardly a week passes that a nursing mother isn’t asked to leave a store, cover herself, or decamp to the bathroom. Breasts, it seems, are only for sexual pleasure. Therefore, their association with children — especially children who can ask for them — becomes tantamount to child abuse.

I’d like to take my breasts back, thanks.

Let me quote the Bloodhound Gang here: you and me, baby, ain’t nothing but mammals. My breasts are not my husband’s. They are not my son’s. They are, first and foremost, my own. And I have chosen to use them for extended breastfeeding: their biological purpose.

There are a lot of reasons for that. Kathy Dettwyller, anthropologist and professor at the University of Delaware, claims the natural age for human weaning, when children are allowed to nurse for as long as they wish, falls somewhere between three and four years of age. Based on physiological and maturational comparisons to other mammals, she estimates the minimum age of human weaning at 2.8 years of age, with a maximum of seven years.

In light of that, nursing barely-three-year-old Baby Bear seems pretty unremarkable.

But it’s not just evolution that tells me to keep going. The benefits of nursing don’t just disappear at age one. Antibodies in breast milk help keep Baby Bear healthy. The longer I nurse, the lower my risk of breast cancer — something every pink-ribbon-waving feminist can support. But most important for me are the psychological benefits.

Baby Bear’s little brother Sunny is a year old. Sunny was a surprise; while we planned Baby Bear and his older brother, we didn’t bank on Sunny. And one of the reasons for that is Baby Bear himself. He’s always been needy, always begged for extra assurances. He warms slowly to family and friends alike. He approaches life with a narrow-eyed skepticism, as if he’s waiting for it to disappoint him. A fall that has his older brother laughing makes him wail. Of all my children, I worry about him inheriting my depression and anxiety the most. He’s a delicate soul, Baby Bear is. And I knew he wouldn’t handle being supplanted.

Because I knew that, I nursed all through my pregnancy. Nursing gave Baby Bear a chance to be a baby again. Like his new little brother, he got special cuddles from mama. He had that magic time of mama all to himself. He nestled in my lap; I kissed his head; we were still deeply, uniquely together. It helped his transition from baby to middle child.

And so we just … kept going. Nursing gave him a safe place. Baby Bear finds the world a pretty overwhelming place sometimes. Loud noises, lots of movement, bright lights: they become too much for him. For months, mama milk stayed his refuge. I handed off his brother to friends and cuddled him close on the floor of a gymnasium, or in the middle of a playdate. He nursed and calmed down and then got up to play again.

Yes, I nursed a toddler in public. It’s normal. It’s unremarkable, no matter how seldom we see it today. And no one asked me leave or told me to stop. If they shot me death glares, I didn’t notice. If I had, I wouldn’t have cared. Extended nursing might not be their choice. But I will not allow their discomfort to minimize or discredit mine.

Nursing has also taught Baby Bear some important rules about consent. A toddler doesn’t nurse like a newborn, and because he doesn’t have a nutritional need, I can say no if I want to. And sometimes, I don’t want touched again. I don’t let him nurse for too long — it can get uncomfortable, and I can’t let him drink all the milk if his brother will need it soon. Sometimes he’s okay with unlatching. Sometimes he gets mad, and I tell him that I understand he’s sad, but he can’t nurse if he throws fits, because it’s too upsetting for both of us. Most importantly, he nurses only once or twice a day, usually in the morning (always after breakfast) or mid-afternoon, post-lunch, pre-quiet-time.

So sometimes I say no.

Baby Bear has to accept this. Nursing a toddler is a relationship, and as the World Health Organization says, breastfeeding should continue “for as long as mother and child desire.” Both mother and child, not one or the other. A nursing relationship takes two.

And will I say no one day? Absolutely.

I weaned Baby Bear’s older brother at age three, when I became pregnant with my youngest. I picked a trip out of town, turned down requests for milk a few times, and that was that. I choose to be finished.

Extended breastfeeding has helped Baby Bear stay healthy and adjust to a changing family dynamic. It’s helped him feel loved. It was a choice I made: to use my body in the way I saw best for my child. Not every mother will make the same choice. Some know formula is right for them; some wean at one year. Their breasts, like mine, are their own. And as women, we can use them however we see fit.

I refuse to give my breasts to the male gaze. I refuse to bow to a one-size-fits-all, nurse-til-one-and-done world. For me, for now, for Baby Bear and his little brother, my breasts are for nurturing. I am happy with that decision. I love nursing my children, and I am grateful Baby Bear has benefited from extended nursing.

I have made my choice, and I will not be shamed.

Elizabeth Broadbent is a writer and mother. This story originally appeared on xoJane.com.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME women

Free the Nipple! The Problem With How We Think About Breasts

Rachel Kramer Bussel writes on sex, dating, books and pop culture.

Normalizing toplessness removes some of the cultural power over women's bodies and their sexuality

If nothing else, Free the Nipple, the new comedic drama directed by and co-starring Lina Esco, and the corresponding movement, is catchy. The film, shot in 2012 and released Friday, is based loosely on a true story and follows a group of fictional New York City activists intent on exercising their right to bare boobs. The movement, launched online by Esco, has drawn famous fans, including Miley Cyrus, Lena Dunham, Scout Willis and other celebrities; on Instagram, there are more than 54,000 posts hashtagged #freethenipple.

The film isn’t simply about nipples, but about equality and feminism, Esco told TIME. “Being topless is what we had to do start a real dialogue about equality. This is not about being topless; this about equality, it’s about having that choice. A lot of people are not informed about the equal pay thing. Women still get paid 78 cents for every dollar a man makes, but very few people know about this. But if there’s a group of girls running around topless all over the United States rallying for equal pay, then it would be making headline news, don’t you think?”

While it isn’t necessarily obvious how Free the Nipple can help women in the workplace, what is clear is that the rules in many states about where women can and can’t go bare chested are seriously out of date. In 1992, activists were successful in getting New York state to allow women to go topless. Free the Nipple claims that toplessness is legal in 13 states, though the organization Go Topless puts the number at 33. It can be a murky legal area, because even where it’s legal, women can and do still get arrested. Last year, New York City police were even given a memo reminding them of the letter of the law.

Free the Nipple is part of a larger mission to reclaim women’s bodies, sexuality, and safety at a time when all are under attack in various ways. To claim that women shouldn’t have the right to be topless when men do is to put the burden of women’s safety and society’s well-being on women’s breasts, as if the public is simply too delicate to handle seeing nipples. “It’s a culture that, in fact, beats into women and men the notion that female bodies are exclusively sexual, even when acting in ways that would be innocuous and permissible for men,” wrote Jessica Blankenship in response to a woman arrested for an outdoor nude art photo shoot. It has also inspired pointed albeit tongue-in-cheek projects like the TaTa Top, a bikini designed to give women the look and feel of being topless while still being technically clothed.

Breastfeeding is a separate but related issue where breasts have come under fire. But even defenses of breastfeeding in public or posting photos of breastfeeding expose the problematic assumptions that women’s breasts shouldn’t be seen. At a nurse-in to protest London department store Claridge, which had told a mother to cover up while breastfeeding, one woman carried a sign reading “That’s what breasts are for, stupid.” Except that’s not what all breasts are for. They’re for whatever a woman wants to do with them. We shouldn’t need to glorify breasts (or women) in order to respect them.

The fact is, it’s still shocking, not to mention gutsy, when a woman dares to walk down the street topless, even in a seemingly shockproof city like New York. When Scout Willis did it earlier this year, to protest Instagram’s banning of an image featuring a jacket adorned with a photo of two topless women, people noticed. As she wrote on xoJane, “What I am arguing for is a woman’s right to choose how she represents her body — and to make that choice based on personal desire and not a fear of how people will react to her or how society will judge her.”

The plot of Free the Nipple is thin and powered by its political message (The New York Times called it “the cinematic equivalent of a billboard”), but I applaud the characters, who, like Willis, expose themselves and own that exposure. They are using their bodies consciously and explicitly to advance a cause. There’s a difference between Willis striding confidently down the street or the film’s activists wearing masks and protesting in Times Square and the way breasts are often used in advertising.

I’ve spent several afternoons topless in various New York City venues with The Co-ed Topless Pulp Fiction Appreciation Society and found myself marveling at how delightful it felt to revel in the sun shining on my bare skin on a hot summer day. Theirs is a social, not political, group, but one whose simple actions can have a similar kind of effect to the Free the Nipple movement. By normalizing toplessness, we’re taking away some of the cultural power that dictates women’s breasts can only be sex symbols, which is the kind of thinking that leads to schools banning visible bra straps.

The right to be topless doesn’t have to be about a larger cause. The bare facts should be enough.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME

Watch Shonda Rhimes’ Amazing Speech on the ‘Glass Ceiling’

"When it was my turn to run," Rhimes said Wednesday, "It didn’t even look like a ceiling anymore."

Shonda Rhimes is a game-changer; there’s really no disputing the fact that she has made an immense impact the portrayals of women in Hollywood. But yesterday, as the executive producer behind some of primetime television’s most popular shows accepted the Sherry Lansing Leadership Award at The Hollywood Reporter’s annual Women in Entertainment breakfast, she said denied breaking any “glass ceilings.”

In her moving speech, Rhimes jokingly evoked Beyonce to explain why she couldn’t be getting an award simply because she is both a woman and African American.

I come from a very large, very competitive family. Extremely competitive. And by competitive, I mean, my mother says we’re not allowed to play Scrabble anymore when we get together because of the injuries and the tears. One of the rules in my family is you don’t ever get a trophy for participation, you don’t get a trophy for just being you. So getting an award today BECAUSE I’m a woman and an African-American feels…I was born with an awesome vagina and really gorgeous brown skin. I didn’t do anything to make either of those things happen.

To get all Beyonce about it, people: “I woke up like this.”

Rhimes said that the honor, which has also been bestowed upon powerhouses including Oprah Winfrey, Barbara Walters, Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep, was also being given to her because of the “glass ceiling that exists in the face of being a woman and being black in this very male, very white town.”

But in her mind, she hasn’t broken any glass ceilings at all. “When it was my turn to run,” Rhimes said Wednesday, “It didn’t even look like a ceiling anymore.”

How many women had to hit that glass before the first crack appeared? How many cuts did they get, how many bruises? How hard did they have to hit the ceiling? How many women had to hit that glass to ripple it, to send out a thousand hairline fractures? How many women had to hit that glass before the pressure of their effort caused it to evolve from a thick pane of glass into just a thin sheet of splintered ice?

She added, “Making it through the glass ceiling to the other side was simply a matter of running on a path created by every other woman’s footprints. I just hit at exactly the right time in exactly the right spot.”

Rhimes’ speech appears in full on Medium under the title “On Ceilings Made of Glass.” Watch her deliver the speech at Wednesday’s event below.

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