Halima Aden on the Burkini That Changed Everything, and What Comes Next

"Being the first is amazing, but it means nothing without a third and a fourth," she says in her InStyle Badass Women video.

Born and raised in Kakuma, a refugee camp in Kenya where her family settled after fleeing from the civil war in Somalia, model Halima Aden recalls her childhood as a happy one. “Beautiful and challenging,” she says in her InStyle Badass Women video, above. “When you’re stripped of everything, you learn to embrace community.”

At age seven, she and her family moved out of the camp to the United States, ultimately settling in St. Cloud, Minnesota. Despite some major cultural adjustments and being thrust into an English-speaking school system, Aden flourished in her adoptive state. She was even named homecoming queen — just the first of many to come for the woman determined to change the rules of representation.

In 2016, at age 19, Aden received (inter)national media attention when she competed in the Miss Minnesota USA pageant — the first contestant in the pageant to wear a burkini, a full-body swimsuit worn by some observant Muslim women, and a hijab.

“Growing up I didn't see representation — anywhere,” Aden says. To her, the pageant weekend signified a new kind inclusiveness, driven by her own desire to see herself up there. “If you don't see yourself represented, do something about it. Don’t just wait for someone to come along and represent you!”

Aden finished among the top 15 but, more importantly, caught the attention of Carine Roitfeld, who cast her in what would be her first editorial shoot for CR Fashion Book. That fashion seal of approval launched her further; Aden became the first model to grace Vogue Arabia and Allure wearing a hijab.

In 2017, Aden hit another milestone, became the first model wearing a hijab to walk a runway show during New York Fashion Week, making her catwalk debut during Autumn/Winter 2017 at Yeezy. She also walked for Alberta Ferretti and Max Mara in Milan. (Did we mention she’s only five-foot-five?)

Life continued to move fast: Rihanna tapped the model to lend her looks for Fenty Beauty and in 2017, Aden was signed to IMG. Still, she says it was a certain burkini that launched her career.

This past spring, Aden became the first Muslim model to appear on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issuewearing a burkini. She wore a hijab too, and referred to herself as a “burkini babe,” calling her appearance in Sports Illustrated, “a dream come true.”

“Growing up in the States, I never really felt represented because I never could flip through a magazine and see a girl who was wearing a hijab,” Aden says.

While she’s making a name for herself by changing norms in the worlds of fashion and beauty, she’s passionate about changing the actual world, too. “I wanna see more action!” she says with a smile. Aden is currently partnered with UNICEF and aims to one day become a UN Ambassador, and instill hope in children like she once was. “The journey of a migrant child is not an easy one,” she says. In all things she does, Aden wants there to be a thread of service woven throughout.

“So many young girls and women around the world look up to me; they know they can challenge themselves too. It’s about taking ownership as a young woman,” she says, adding that she wants to see changes in her wake. “Being the first is amazing, but it means nothing without a third and a fourth.”

Aden drives it home, declaring that young women should follow her lead — by being themselves. “The world meets you where you stand. Be yourself and stand in that proudly! Don't change the world, change the game.”

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