What do Karlie Kloss, Kendall Jenner, Gigi Hadid, and Madeline Stuart have in common? They're some of the most buzzed about supermodels in the industry. But what separates Australia-based, 21-year-old Madeline Stuart from her catwalking peers is that she has Down's Syndrome — and she's using it as a platform to redefine beauty standards, spark conversation about social inclusion, and inspire others to pursue their own goals.
In August 2015, Stuart's mother, Rosanne, took her to a fashion runway show, and she instantly fell in love with the idea of becoming a model herself.
“All the women on the catwalk looked like they were having fun, and also they looked confident and beautiful," Stuart told SWAAY in an exclusive interview. “I wanted people to see me — and all differently abled people — that way, also. I told my mum I wanted to be a model, and she organized a photoshoot a few months later to see if I actually would like modeling, which I did."
Her mother shared the professional images with a closed group comprised of members who had friends and family with Down's Syndrome, too. She said she wanted to have someone else to talk to about the images, but was overwhelmed by the incredible feedback that followed.
Overnight, the pictures received over 50,000 likes, and within a week her photo was popping up in people's feeds all over the world. Shortly after, she booked her first modeling gig.
Since that fateful shoot, Stuart's gone viral on numerous occasions and has garnered nearly a million fans across her social media channels. Beyond that, her career as a model has blossomed impressively. She's strutted the runway at New York Fashion Week (the second model with Down's Syndrome ever to do so), Paris Fashion Week, Caspian Fashion Week, and Mercedes Benz Fashion Week China. She's also landed editorial shoots and advertising campaigns in the bridal, fitness, and lifestyle sectors.
Changing the Industry
In addition to focusing on her career, Stuart's also deliberately shared her story with countless media outlets, including big-name publications like Cosmopolitan, Teen Vogue, CNN, ABC, Good Housekeeping, and Women's Day. People have responded as you might expect: by championing her and rooting for her success along the way.
However, telling her story to the world has done more than simply leave people basking in a cocoon of warm and fuzzy feelings. Her experience — and her presence in ad campaigns and runways — has sparked important conversations about the inclusion of differently abled people in the modeling industry, and other industries. As such, Stuart has made it her mission to be an ambassador for real change, and her talent, charisma and confidence has made her unstoppable.
Interestingly, she's quick to acknowledge that a chunk of her success is ironically attributed to her Down's Syndrome.
“I think if you have a different ability, society does not think you are capable of greatness. So, if you do something that is out of the ordinary that stands out, people will notice you more easily," Stuart said.
That's exactly what happened when her photos went viral, and Stuart seized the momentum.
“Because I do not have all the insecurities a lot of people have, and I believe in myself 100 percent, when I was given the opportunity to do lots of amazing things I did them without hesitation," she said. “Because I did these things, a lot of people have noticed, and it has given me a platform to encourage others to strive for greatness and believe in themselves also."
Amid the feel-good fall out of her catapulted fame — and feeling blessed along the way for her success — Stuart still has her struggles as a model within the industry. In fact, when asked about her primary challenges as a model, she told SWAAY that actually changing people's perspectives on how they perceive disability is the most difficult part of her journey.
“We, as society, have had the mindset for a long time if we include someone with a disability we are doing them a favor, and that the inclusion is the only payment necessary," said Stuart. “We have to try to start seeing people with different abilities as equals who also are working and struggling and also need to be treated equally on a commercial basis."
The takeaway here is that though Stuart wants to inspire people through her own work as a supermodel, one of her primary goals is to carve a way for others who don't conform to traditional beauty standards, and to demonstrate that differently abled people are just as capable of succeeding across a multiple of industries as anyone else.
That translates into changing everyone's perspective, including those who are differently abled themselves.
“Just because you do not fit with what society thought for a long time was beautiful does not mean you are not beautiful. We are all beautiful — in all our shapes and sizes —and we all have different qualities that we can input into our world to make it a better place," she said. “Don't be scared of failure. Believe in yourself and if you do fail, focus on the belief you tried and that is all that matters. We worry too much about the ending and we should be just enjoying the journey."
Women in the workplace have always experienced a certain degree of discrimination from male colleagues, and according to new studies, it appears that it is becoming even more difficult for women to get acclimated to modern day work environments, in wake of the #MeToo Movement.
In a recent study conducted by LeanIn.org, in partnership with SurveyMonkey, 60% of male managers confessed to feeling uncomfortable engaging in social situations with women in and outside of the workplace. This includes interactions such as mentorships, meetings, and basic work activities. This statistic comes as a shocking 32% rise from 2018.
What appears the be the crux of the matter is that men are afraid of being accused of sexual harassment. While it is impossible to discredit this fear as incidents of wrongful accusations have taken place, the extent to which it has burgeoned is unacceptable. The #MeToo movement was never a movement against men, but an empowering opportunity for women to speak up about their experiences as victims of sexual harassment. Not only were women supporting one another in sharing to the public that these incidents do occur, and are often swept under the rug, but offered men insight into behaviors and conversations that are typically deemed unwelcomed and unwarranted.
Restricting interaction with women in the workplace is not a solution, but a mere attempt at deflecting from the core issue. Resorting to isolation and exclusion relays the message that if men can't treat women how they want, then they rather not deal with them at all. Educating both men and women on what behaviors are unacceptable while also creating a work environment where men and women are held accountable for their actions would be the ideal scenario. However, the impact of denying women opportunities of mentorship and productive one-on-one meetings hinders growth within their careers and professional networks.
Women, particularly women of color, have always had far fewer opportunities for mentorship which makes it impossible to achieve growth within their careers without them. If women are given limited opportunities to network in and outside of a work environment, then men must limit those opportunities amongst each other, as well. At the most basic level, men should be approaching female colleagues as they would approach their male colleagues. Striving to achieve gender equality within the workplace is essential towards creating a safer environment.
While restricted communication and interaction may diminish the possibility of men being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment, it creates a hostile
environment that perpetuates women-shaming and victim-blaming. Creating distance between men and women only prompts women to believe that male colleagues who avoid them will look away from or entirely discredit sexual harassment they experience from other men in the workplace. This creates an unsafe working environment for both parties where the problem at hand is not solved, but overlooked.
According to LeanIn's study, only 85% of women said they feel safe on the job, a 5% drop from 2018. In the report, Jillesa Gebhardt wrote, "Media coverage that is intended to hold aggressors accountable also seems to create a sense of threat, and people don't seem to feel like aggressors are held accountable." Unfortunately, only 16% of workers believed that harassers holding high positions are held accountable for their actions which inevitably puts victims in difficult, and quite possibly dangerous, situations. 50% of workers also believe that there are more repercussions for the victims than harassers when speaking up.
In a research poll conducted by Edison Research in 2018, 30% of women agreed that their employers did not handle harassment situations properly while 53% percent of men agreed that they did. Often times, male harassers hold a significant amount of power within their careers that gives them a sense of security and freedom to go forward with sexual misconduct. This can be seen in cases such as that of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and R. Kelly. Men in power seemingly have little to no fear that they will face punishment for their actions.
Source-Alex Brandon, AP
Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook executive and founder of LeanIn.org., believes that in order for there to be positive changes within work environments, more women should be in higher positions. In an interview with CNBC's Julia Boorstin, Sandberg stated, "you know where the least sexual harassment is? Organizations that have more women in senior leadership roles. And so, we need to mentor women, we need to sponsor women, we need to have one-on-one conversations with them that get them promoted." Fortunately, the number of women in leadership positions are slowly increasing which means the prospect of gender equality and safer work environments are looking up.
Despite these concerning statistics, Sandberg does not believe that movements such as the Times Up and Me Too movements, have been responsible for the hardship women have been experiencing in the workplace. "I don't believe they've had negative implications. I believe they're overwhelmingly positive. Because half of women have been sexually harassed. But the thing is it is not enough. It is really important not to harass anyone. But that's pretty basic. We also need to not be ignored," she stated. While men may be feeling uncomfortable, putting an unrealistic amount of distance between themselves and female coworkers is more harmful to all parties than it is beneficial. Men cannot avoid working with women and vice versa. Creating such a hostile environment is also detrimental to any business as productivity and communication will significantly decrease.
The fear or being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment is a legitimate fear that deserves recognition and understanding. However, restricting interactions with women in the workplace is not a sensible solution as it can have negatively impact a woman's career. Companies are in need of proper training and resources to help both men and women understand what is appropriate workplace behavior. Refraining from physical interactions, commenting on physical appearance, making lewd or sexist jokes and inquiring about personal information are also beneficial steps towards respecting your colleagues' personal space. There is still much work to be done in order to create safe work environments, but with more and more women speaking up and taking on higher positions, women can feel safer and hopefully have less contributions to make to the #MeToo movement.