For Mama Cax, modeling is an act of self-love. In a world that privileges a narrow standard of beauty and attempts to erase those who don’t fall within it, she opens up a perspective on what the industry could—and should—aspire to look like. On the runway, in front of the camera, and in every frame of her Instagram feed, she embraces herself, her black girl magic, and her disability. “It’s not only looking out for myself, but looking out for my community and making sure that whatever doors I open stay open,” she says.
Cax, who grew up in Haiti and is now based in New York, was diagnosed with bone and lung cancer when she was 14. “The worst part was I didn’t know much about cancer when I was diagnosed,” she recalls. “The stories I heard from friends were scary. It sounded like a death sentence, and my doctors weren’t confident I was going to make it, because this thing was spreading.” Following her treatment, she had a hip replacement, but realized a few weeks later that her body was rejecting it. She was told she had to go into surgery within a matter of hours, where she got a hemipelvectomy amputation on her right leg—a procedure that meant she would require a prosthetic leg and crutches.
At first, becoming confident in her skin wasn’t even a thought she entertained. “I broke down crying,” she says of the moments immediately following her surgery. “I probably spent one or two weeks without looking at my body whatsoever. That sort of disgust lingered and lasted throughout my early years in college. Feeling beautiful or being in a space where I would feel beautiful was not at all on my radar. It wasn’t a priority because I figured I could never get there.”
Growing up, her vision of what it meant to be a beautiful woman entailed curves, long hair, and lighter skin, an image she viewed in opposition to herself. “Obviously, I didn’t fit any of that,” she says. “I still don’t fit any of that.” Her earliest memory of feeling pretty remains clear in her mind—getting her ears pierced at eight years old, a rite she thought of as a marker of femininity.
There is no longer any mold Cax tries to inhabit other than the definition she makes for herself. Rather than attempting to make others comfortable by shopping for prosthetic legs that match her skin tone, she revels in her collection of vibrant covers by Alleles, often matching them to her outfit. But that shift required her to first re-examine her relationship to her appearance and how disability would fit into her identity. At first, fashion was a way for her to hide everything she had no desire to see. “I fell in love with fashion because I realized I looked pretty when I covered everything up,” she says.
Then two things happened. A decision to travel through Southeast Asia made her realize that blogs failed to account for much of the population. “They didn’t tell me if I’d be safe as a woman, if I would face racism, and if it was accessible,” she says. She decided to provide that information and in doing so, began to speak about her disability with confidence. “I think that was the very moment where I was like, ‘I’m a woman with a disability, I need certain accommodation—how can I get there, survive there for six months, and use my knowledge to let other people know they can do it as well.'”