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."
New parents re-entering the workforce are often juggling the tangible realities of daycare logistics, sleep deprivation, and a cascade of overwhelming work. No matter how parents build their family, they often struggle with the guilt of being split between home and work and not feeling exceptionally successful in either place.
Women building their families often face a set of challenges different from men. Those who have had children biologically may be navigating the world of pumping at work. Others might feel pulled in multiple directions when bringing a child into their home after adoption. Some women are trying to learn how to care for a newborn for the first time. New parents need all the help they can get with their transition.
Women returning to work after kids sometimes have to address comments such as:
"I didn't think you'd come back."
"You must feel so guilty."
"You missed a lot while you were out."
To counteract this difficult situation, women are finding mentors and making targeting connections. Parent mentors can help new moms address integrating their new life realities with work, finding resources within the organization and local community, and create connections with peers.
There's also an important role for parent mentors to play in discussing career trajectory. Traditionally, men who have families see more promotions compared to women with children. Knowing that having kids may represent a career setback for women, they may work with their mentors to create an action plan to "back on track" or to get recognized for their contributions as quickly as possible after returning to work.
Previously, in a bid to accommodate mothers transitioning back to work, corporate managers would make a show at lessoning the workload for newly returned mothers. This approach actually did more harm than good, as the mother's skills and ambitions were marginalized by these alleged "family friendly" policies, ultimately defining her for the workplace as a mother, rather than a person focused on career.
Today, this is changing. Some larger organizations, such as JP Morgan Chase, have structured mentorship programs that specifically target these issues and provide mentors for new parents. These programs match new parents navigating a transition back to work with volunteer mentors who are interested in helping and sponsoring moms. Mentors in the programs do not need to be moms, or even parents, themselves, but are passionate about making sure the opportunities are available.
It's just one other valuable way corporations are evolving when it comes to building quality relationships with their employees – and successfully retaining them, empowering women who face their own set of special barriers to career growth and leadership success.
Mentoring will always be a two way street. In ideal situations, both parties will benefit from the relationship. It's no different when women mentor working mothers getting back on track on the job. But there a few factors to consider when embracing this new form of mentorship
How to be a good Momtor?
Listen: For those mentoring a new parent, one of the best strategies to take is active listening. Be present and aware while the mentee shares their thoughts, repeat back what you hear in your own words, and acknowledge emotions. The returning mother is facing a range of emotions and potentially complicated situations, and the last thing she wants to hear is advice about how she should be feeling about the transition. Instead, be a sounding board for her feelings and issues with returning to work. Validate her concerns and provide a space where she can express herself without fear of retribution or bull-pen politics. This will allow the mentee a safe space to sort through her feelings and focus on her real challenges as a mother returning to work.
Share: Assure the mentee that they aren't alone, that other parents just like them are navigating the transition back to work. Provide a list of ways you've coped with the transition yourself, as well as your best parenting tips. Don't be afraid to discuss mothering skills as well as career skills. Work on creative solutions to the particular issues your mentee is facing in striking her new work/life balance.
Update Work Goals: A career-minded woman often faces a new reality once a new child enters the picture. Previous career goals may appear out of reach now that she has family responsibilities at home. Each mentee is affected by this differently, but good momtors help parents update her work goals and strategies for realizing them, explaining, where applicable, where the company is in a position to help them with their dreams either through continuing education support or specific training initiatives.
Being a role model for a working mother provides a support system, at work, that they can rely on just like the one they rely on at home with family and friends. Knowing they have someone in the office, who has knowledge about both being a mom and a career woman, will go a long way towards helping them make the transition successfully themselves.