Most of the time, when we think of the world of TV, movies or fashion, we think of impossible beauty standards, mass-produced people who fit into a particular mold of looks that 99.9% of the rest of us simply don’t fit into to.
But not model Madeline Stuart. Stuart is an 18 year old woman from Australia who has just landed two major modelling contracts – one with handbag brand everMayaManifesta – with more contracts and offers on the way. So how is this different from any other young model’s fledgling career? As a point of difference, Stuart has Down Syndrome.
While Stuart is making headlines due to her disability, she is of course not the first high profile person with Down Syndrome to have a strong media presence. The character of Becky Jackson on popular American musical/comedy-drama show Glee (2009-2015) was played by Lauren Potter, who also has Down Syndrome.
As part of Diversityworks research campaign ‘More Diversity on Screen’, we found that Becky was a much-loved character, who was praised for her authenticity – in that a character with a disability was actually being played by an actress with a disability. However, some criticised the storylines which featured Becky in a negative light, for example when she accidentally brings a gun to school. In response, Potter’s mother said, “If Becky’s going to be fully included on the show…then why not? Whether she has Down syndrome or not, it doesn’t matter, because she’s a kid. She’s a teenager. She makes stupid decisions just like other teenagers do.”
Damian Graybelle, president of the NY-based everMaya, shared on his blog, “As uncomfortable as it may be for us to admit in a society that has made some tremendous leaps as of late in becoming more accepting, people with disabilities are still often viewed dismissively as being less capable. Let me be clear here — Madeline Stuart is not a ‘beautiful young woman with Down syndrome,’ rather she is beautiful — full stop,” he continues. “In every photo featuring Madeline, you see an expression of pure joy on her face. That joy is infectious, and you can’t help but walk away with a smile of your own as well.”
But Stuart has worked hard to get where she is too. According to Heather Dockray of the blog ‘Good’, “Stuart gained international attention when she started campaigning for more diverse models and more inclusive beauty standards. She began working out and speaking out, in hopes of becoming hired. Since making her voice known, her story’s gone viral, and her career has simply catapulted.” So far, Stuart has amassed well over 400,000 likes on Facebook and more than 46,000 followers on Instagram.
The idea of ‘inclusive beauty standards’ is perhaps a bit of an oxymoron. On the one hand, it’s wonderful to see someone with a disability featured in such a high profile way. On the other, it seems that even a model with Down Syndrome must fit into a certain stereotypical idea of ‘beauty’ in order to be accepted into the industry. However Stuart herself says on her Facebook page, “Modeling will help change [society’s] view of people with Down Syndrome. Exposure will help to create acceptance.”
So what do you think? Is Stuart’s success worth celebrating?