Watamu Beach in Kenya is the perfect locale for a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue photo shoot. White sand beaches form the ideal backdrop for scantily clad women to loll about coquettishly in sea spray.
Except in this photo spread, Minnesota model Halima Aden reclines in a full-coverage bathing suit, a burkini, that conforms to the guidelines of her Muslim faith. Her head covered in hijab, she beams a giddy smile and the camera clicks.
This unexpected twist is a historic moment for model and magazine alike.
SI Swimsuit editor MJ Day said she admired Aden’s “intelligence, enthusiasm and authenticity,” and selected her for the issue because “beauty knows no boundaries.” In a video of the photo shoot, Aden models several styles of burkini — one a flowy silver and red, another a sleek color-blocked wetsuit — which cover everything but her hands, feet, and face.
Aden was born in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. When she was 7 years old, her family immigrated to the United States, eventually settling in St. Cloud, Minn. In 2016, she became the first Miss Minnesota USA beauty pageant contestant to compete in a hijab and burkini. She didn’t win the pageant, but she landed a contract with international modeling agency IMG Models.
From there, Aden walked runways in Milan, vaulting her into an international spotlight. When Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue editors approached her about participating in their iconic annual issue, including a photoshoot in her home country, Aden was thrilled.
“It’s a dream come true,” Aden told Sports Illustrated. “Growing up in the United States, I never really felt represented because I never could flip through a magazine and see a girl who was wearing a hijab.”
Since its launch in 1964, the swimsuit issue has been considered a bastion of “ideal feminine beauty,” with covers dominated by slim women, often caucasian, often in bikinis. In 1996, Tyra Banks was the first African American woman to make the cover of the swimsuit issue. For its 2016 publication, the magazine selected three cover models, including its first-ever plus-size model, Ashley Graham and muscular UFC fighter Ronda Rousey.
Photos of the self-described “burkini babe” will appear in the 2019 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, on newsstands May 8.