Halima Aden Breaks Boundaries as the First Model to Wear a Hijab and Burkini in 'SI Swimsuit' 2019

The Muslim model and activist makes history with her Sports Illustrated Swimsuit debut

Sports Illustrated Swimsuit is continuing to champion inclusivity in the industry. And the 2019 issue is the most diverse ever. Somali-American model and activist Halima Aden makes her SI Swimsuit debut this year, marking the first time a model has posed in a hijab and a burkini in the magazine.

Aden, who was born at a refugee camp in Kenya where she lived until the age of seven before moving to the United States, traveled back to her birth country for her ground-breaking SI Swimsuit rookie spread shot by photographer Yu Tsai.

“I keep thinking [back] to six-year-old me who, in this same country, was in a refugee camp,” Aden, 21, told SI during her shoot. “So to grow up to live the American dream [and] to come back to Kenya and shoot for SI in the most beautiful parts of Kenya–I don’t think that’s a story that anybody could make up.”

Swimsuit 2019: KenyaHalima AdenKenya1/18/2019X162383 TK3Credit: Yu Tsai
Yu Tsai for Sports Illustrated Swimsuit 2019

And this is just one of many boundary-breaking moments for the model. She was the first woman to wear a hijab in the Miss Minnesota USA pageant, where she placed as semi-finalist and wore a burkini for the swimsuit competition. The pageant sky-rocketed her career, landing her a contract with IMG Models. Quickly after, Aden made her runway debut during New York Fashion Week Fall 2017 as a model in Kanye West‘s Yeezy Season 5 show.

“Having Halima as a part of SI Swimsuit is yet another example of the range and scope of the type of beauty that exists,” says MJ Day, Editor of SI Swimsuit. “Her participation and inclusion further highlights the brands commitment and belief in supporting women to own who they are and what makes them unique and ultimately reaffirms what our messaging has been — that you are worthy.”

Swimsuit 2019: KenyaHalima AdenKenya1/18/2019X162383 TK3Credit: Yu Tsai
Yu Tsai for Sports Illustrated Swimsuit 2019

Below, Day shares more details on Aden’s history-making modeling moment.

How does Halima’s Sports Illustrated Swimsuit debut continue the brand’s message of inclusivity?

A woman does not have to fit into a specific category or box to be respected and celebrated. If you feel confident and beautiful in a string bikini, go for it, if you feel that way in a burkini and a hijab, OWN IT! BE YOU, BE CONFIDENT, BE GORGEOUS, WE ARE HERE FOR IT, and so are a lot of other people. SI Swimsuit is committed to celebrating the individuality that makes the people in the world so beautiful and special. We want that to be the cultural norm and we will continue to push that ideal forward.

Take us behind the scenes of her shoot.

Halima is originally from Kenya, so while she spent her early years there, it was in a refugee camp, so she had never experienced the incredible beauty her own country had to offer. I loved seeing Halima see Kenya through the prism of a SI Swimsuit shoot for the first time. We wanted it to be special for her and it was. She was in awe. We brought her to both the turquoise water and white sand beaches of coastal Malindi and the mind blowing Masai Mara at Hemingway’s Ol Seki Mara Camp. Every thing she saw was a first for her, and when we touched down on the airstrip on the Mara, there were giraffes roaming around, just seemingly waiting for us right there and she just lost it. I loved that we could give these beautiful moments to her, because as you will see from her shoot, she gave many to us.

Why was it important for the brand to have her join the SI Swimsuit family in 2019?

I don’t want the conversation to stop at body diversity, there have been too many limits placed on what a woman should wear and what she should look like in order to be considered worthy of being celebrated in the media, or taken seriously. We have had such meaningful impact on how women feel about themselves we won’t stop there. For too long, women have been told they have specific boxes that they need to stay in, and SI Swimsuit knows we can help change that. We want to help shatter perceptions that hold people back from realizing their potential.

Who designed her burkinis?

There aren’t a ton of burkini designers, so we sourced from a retailer called Modanisa who specializes in modest clothing and swimwear, but we are hoping to inspire some people to start creating! We had quite a few custom burkinis designed for Halima. We wanted to highlight a range of options, everything from super sporty to glam and everything in between. Cynthia Rowley, No Ka’Oi and Cover Swim designed some of my favorites. But we also had fun with some simple catsuits and paired them up with some really chic pieces from Gucci, YSL and Camilla. We had a lot of fun with the range that can exist in this space!

How is Halima paving the way for a more diverse industry with her activism?

When you take a second to think about a person, hear their story and allow yourself to view them as a human being, it changes everything. Perceptions are so easily shattered when you give a person a voice. This is what Halima has: a powerful voice, an incredible story, a willingness to share it. Her extraordinary beauty makes you look, but her message makes you listen. I have no doubt that the millions of people who see her and hear from her in SI Swimsuit will be as inspired and mesmerized as we are. I’m confident that people, modest or not, will see something of themselves reflected in her and that alone, is what can lead to meaningful and impactful change.

For more from Halima Aden’s history-making photo shoot, pick up the issue of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit on stands May 8.

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