Let's rethink what it means to be a 'model' with disabilities

Buzzfeed was right. This video about a young woman with Down Syndrome losing a ton of weight to pursue her goal of being a model “made me feel all the feelings”… including conflicted.

Let’s start by setting some very important groundwork for what I’m about to assert. The woman featured in Buzzfeed’s video is both stunningly beautiful and inspirational. I am not attacking her, nor am I suggesting that she is undeserving of recognition. I also understand that women with disabilities are underrepresented in the media and this needs to change. This young woman simply deserves to be celebrated for the right reasons: her dedication to achieving a difficult goal and her desire to make women with Downs a more visible population.

As I’ve mentioned before in previous articles, I have both a brother and brother-in-law with Down Syndrome and I’ve spent my entire adult life working with people with disabilities. My brothers don’t aspire to be swimsuit models. They want to be champion bowlers, caring family members, hard workers at their day programs, good friends, sometimes Spiderman, and a bunch of other things that are specific to them as individuals.

The fact that they celebrate their achievements rather than how their bodies look is not because they have Down Syndrome. It’s because they’re men and the market that tells them they need to be thinner and hotter is significantly smaller. I’m fully convinced that when the brother I grew up with puts on a swimsuit, he’s not thinking about his abs or the fact that by mid-summer his farmer’s tan makes him look like an Oreo. He’s thinking about swimming into the middle of the deep end so no one can get him out of the pool. This is not to say that men with developmental disabilities don’t have body insecurities, because they certainly do. The point I’m trying to make is that women with disabilities, like women in general, are more targeted than their male counterparts by messaging that says they have to look a certain way to be visible, to be a “model.”

If this video was about a young woman with Downs deciding to take care of her body differently so that she could do the things she loves like hip-hop dancing and sports, I’d be super-soaking the internet with it, but it’s not. The fact that I had to sit through four long seconds of a Bernstein Diet ad before I got access to it was my first clue that something had gone awry.

Realistically and as the film mentioned, many people with developmental disabilities (and their families) are told that they won’t really accomplish anything. This is one of several points of agreement I have with the clip. It exposes a lie that deserves to be stamped out.

The other thing that deserves to be stamped out is the beauty industry, which tells women of all ability levels that what is important is how they look when they move rather than how they feel… And really, how is a woman with Downs supposed to feel when she sees this?
Feminist current_model down syndromeI don’t care where you are at in terms of cognitive development; when we celebrate the differences between the left picture and the right picture, everyone gets the message. You’re visible when you’re sexy.

I’d like to celebrate Madeline for the fact that she’s probably an incredible dancer and athlete. I’d also like to celebrate the fact that she’s a model as we very much need visual representations of women in the media with Downs, as well as women who have one leg instead of two, women who are visually impaired, women with colostomy bags, and women who use wheelchairs. I’d also like to celebrate women with Downs that are kicking ass at what they do (and loving it) despite looking more like the “before” picture above than the “after.” If I had a choice in the matter, I’d prefer for the teen girls I know with disabilities to seek inspiration from this video (which, you may notice, also features a woman with Downs) and remind the general public that unless you are Madeline Stuart or her physician, her weight loss shouldn’t be your concern.

If being a model means visually representing a diverse range of women’s bodies in which this young woman’s “before” picture could be included, I fully support and affirm her goal. If being a model comes with all its current diversity-erasing baggage and is owned by the beauty industry, I’d prefer we all advocate for a different way to gain visibility and representation.

Jess Martin

Jess Martin is a public relations professional, an aspiring writer, and an assistant editor at Feminist Current. She prefers to write about feminist topics, disability, or environmental issues, but could be persuaded to broaden her horizons in exchange for payment and/or food. In her spare time Jess can be found knitting, gardening, or lying in the fetal position, mulling over political theory that no one in their right mind cares about.