Anyone with a vague understanding of the fashion industry is aware of its ingrained problems. The bodies of painfully thin, white and able-bodied women are glorified and paraded across billboards and runways—damaging the self-worth of women who do not fit these standards. Enter Madeline Stuart, an 18-year-old woman with Down syndrome who has made waves in the fashion industry.
Stuart appeared in a charity show at the Midtown Athletic Club in Rochester on Thursday Sept. 17. Stuart became well-known after her appearance in New York Fashion Week in the FTL Moda presentation of international designers.
The reaction to Stuart’s presence on the runway was immediate and overwhelmingly positive. The inclusion of a model with Down syndrome in Fashion Week is an incredible step for the disabled community, as people with disabilities have had almost no presence in the fashion industry. The representation of people with bodies that stray from the able-bodied norm is an amazing advancement.
While Stuart’s success is undoubtedly positive, the nature of the fashion industry and its impact on young women is troubling. After some research into Stuart’s biography, I learned that Stuart lost over 40 pounds before attempting to break into the modeling business.
This speaks volumes about the inherent sexism and rigid standards of beauty that still exist in the fashion industry. It is nearly impossible to wholeheartedly embrace Stuart’s success knowing that she faces the same abuse that other models face.
Stuart is extremely thin, blue-eyed and white. Rather than embracing her disability, it seems that the media’s reaction to her has been entirely positive because she is “overcoming” her disability while passing as what we view as standardly beautiful. Stuart will still face the same criticisms, objectification and sexualization that other female models do, which is seen in the weight loss she underwent before entering the industry.
It is important to note that while Stuart has made strides in advancement for people with disabilities, she is still being forced to conform to a system that idealizes thin, able-bodied people and the European standard of beauty. The nature of the fashion world creates an interesting discussion—while Stuart’s individual triumphs should certainly be applauded, they do not solve inherent problems within the industry.
An interesting dialogue about the entrance of the disabled community into the fashion world has been sparked by Stuart’s fame. While many believe that her experience will encourage the casting of more disabled models, it is important to recognize the multitude of disabilities and body types that exist. We should stray even further from the typical model aesthetic.
The idea that models with varying disabilities and body types will become prevalent in the fashion industry is still somewhat intangible. Despite the varying responses and outcomes of Stuart’s success, her presence at Fashion Week created an extremely important discourse in terms of how society and the media view people with disabilities