Madeline Stuart is a model that in order to get to Paris and New York runways had to submit her body to the usual violence of the fashion world. Her famous photos of the “before and after” of radical weight loss, and the chronicles of her proud mother, explain the strict diet and sports schedule in which Madeline lives immersed. This would not be a matter of attention if we were dealing with a regular model; however, Madeline presents a particularity: she has Down syndrome.
The fact that this is a matter determines the way media and society interpret all her actions, like it’s a sort of heroic personal improvement, as the more she adjusts her body and behaviour to the norms, paradoxically, the more her difference is praised. Madeline is often positioned in the morbid category of “different models”, among several other people with functional diversity: such as the bionic Rebekah Marine or the amputee Karen Crespo. Will the fashion world begin to appreciate the beauty of diversity? Or is it capturing the potential of body dissidence through its most normative representatives? In what refers to the case of plus size models and their claim as also being sexy, “curvy“, the controversy is on.
Madeline’s life is daily casted through social networks. Her profiles, managed by his mother who is also her agent, have hundreds of thousands of followers. One of the most attracting elements of her life is her relationship with Robbie, a young man who also has functional intellectual diversity. Their photos show a happy couple complying with all the rites of romantic love: evenings with the perfect dim light, hand-holding walks, anniversary celebrations and unconditional love promises. The number of “likes” increases with each of one of the photos. Her bride photo session in a traditional white dress, accompanied by an attractive model and performed in a usual place of celebration of this type of unions, also had an enthusiastic welcome. The followers applaud each of these events that are shaped as achievements towards Madeline’s normalization (patriarchal and ableist).
However, positioning a young woman with Down syndrome as a model of beauty and professional and personal success has a subversive potential. Women with functional diversity, even those who are classified as “intellectually disabled,” suffer from daily patriarchal violence in a blatant way, namely in the transgression of their sexual and reproductive rights (just think about forced sterilizations), and invisible in their symbolic position as “undesirable bodies”. Paraphrasing Monique Wittig, one could say “the disabled are not women”, alluding to the fact that the category of women only makes sense within the heteronormative framework from which this group is expelled.
Therefore, Madeline occupies an unexpected place for a woman with functional diversity: sexy, successful, desirable. Her relationship shows that she has the same emotional and sexual desires as anyone. Her photos dressed in white, with the strong symbolic link between marriage and reproduction, position her as a Woman and a potential Mother. These are, therefore, break through representations that inspire thousands of women with functional diversity (and so many others). In this sense, Madeleine is configured as a positive reference. But we need so much more! Social acceptance cannot be subject to assimilation to patriarchal models and capacitators such as those that, everyday push more and more people with Down syndrome to undergo invasive aesthetic surgeries to “normalize” their appearance. Not all of us can and don’t want to be supermodels; we want to be able to choose beyond the outmoded archetypes of femininity that violate our bodies and threaten our way of life.
This post was originally written in Spanish. Click here for the original text.