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."
Gender divisions in sports have primarily served to keep women out of what has always been believed to be a male domain. The idea of women participating alongside men has been regarded with contempt under the belief that women were made physically inferior.
Within their own division, women have reached new heights, received accolades for outstanding physical performance and endurance, and have proven themselves to be as capable of athletic excellence as men. In spite of women's collective fight to be recognized as equals to their male counterparts, female athletes must now prove their womanhood in order to compete alongside their own gender.
That has been the reality for Caster Semenya, a South African Olympic champion, who has been at the center of the latest gender discrimination debate across the world. After crushing her competition in the women's 800-meter dash in 2016, Semenya was subjected to scrutiny from her peers based upon her physical appearance, calling her gender into question. Despite setting a new national record for South Africa and attaining the title of fifth fastest woman in Olympic history, Semenya's success was quickly brushed aside as she became a spectacle for all the wrong reasons.
Semenya's gender became a hot topic among reporters as the Olympic champion was subjected to sex testing by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). According to Ruth Padawer from the New York Times, Semenya was forced to undergo relentless examination by gender experts to determine whether or not she was woman enough to compete as one. While the IAAF has never released the results of their testing, that did not stop the media from making irreverent speculations about the athlete's gender.
Moments after winning the Berlin World Athletics Championship in 2009, Semenya was faced with immediate backlash from fellow runners. Elisa Cusma who suffered a whopping defeat after finishing in sixth place, felt as though Semenya was too masculine to compete in a women's race. Cusma stated, "These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She's a man." While her statement proved insensitive enough, her perspective was acknowledged and appeared to be a mutually belief among the other white female competitors.
Fast forward to 2018, the IAAF issued new Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development) that apply to events from 400m to the mile, including 400m hurdles races, 800m, and 1500m. The regulations created by the IAAF state that an athlete must be recognized at law as either female or intersex, she must reduce her testosterone level to below 5 nmol/L continuously for the duration of six months, and she must maintain her testosterone levels to remain below 5 nmol/L during and after competing so long as she wishes to be eligible to compete in any future events. It is believed that these new rules have been put into effect to specifically target Semenya given her history of being the most recent athlete to face this sort of discrimination.
With these regulations put into effect, in combination with the lack of information about whether or not Semenya is biologically a female of male, society has seemed to come to the conclusion that Semenya is intersex, meaning she was born with any variation of characteristics, chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals. After her initial testing, there had been alleged leaks to media outlets such as Australia's Daily Telegraph newspaper which stated that Semenya's results proved that her testosterone levels were too high. This information, while not credible, has been widely accepted as fact. Whether or not Semenya is intersex, society appears to be missing the point that no one is entitled to this information. Running off their newfound acceptance that the Olympic champion is intersex, it calls into question whether her elevated levels of testosterone makes her a man.
The IAAF published a study concluding that higher levels of testosterone do, in fact, contribute to the level of performance in track and field. However, higher testosterone levels have never been the sole determining factor for sex or gender. There are conditions that affect women, such as PCOS, in which the ovaries produce extra amounts of testosterone. However, those women never have their womanhood called into question, nor should they—and neither should Semenya.
Every aspect of the issue surrounding Semenya's body has been deplorable, to say the least. However, there has not been enough recognition as to how invasive and degrading sex testing actually is. For any woman, at any age, to have her body forcibly examined and studied like a science project by "experts" is humiliating and unethical. Under no circumstances have Semenya's health or well-being been considered upon discovering that her body allegedly produces an excessive amount of testosterone. For the sake of an organization, for the comfort of white female athletes who felt as though Semenya's gender was an unfair advantage against them, Semenya and other women like her, must undergo hormone treatment to reduce their performance to that of which women are expected to perform at. Yet some women within the athletic community are unphased by this direct attempt to further prove women as inferior athletes.
As difficult as this global invasion of privacy has been for the athlete, the humiliation and sense of violation is felt by her people in South Africa. Writer and activist, Kari, reported that Semenya has had the country's undying support since her first global appearance in 2009. Even after the IAAF released their new regulations, South Africans have refuted their accusations. Kari stated, "The Minister of Sports and Recreation and the Africa National Congress, South Africa's ruling party labeled the decision as anti-sport, racist, and homophobic." It is no secret that the build and appearance of Black women have always been met with racist and sexist commentary. Because Black women have never managed to fit into the European standard of beauty catered to and in favor of white women, the accusations of Semenya appearing too masculine were unsurprising.
Despite the countless injustices Semenya has faced over the years, she remains as determined as ever to return to track and field and compete amongst women as the woman she is. Her fight against the IAAF's regulations continues as the Olympic champion has been receiving and outpour of support in wake of the Association's decision. Semenya is determined to run again, win again, and set new and inclusive standards for women's sports.