The Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue finally has something I can cheer.
Halima Aden, a 21-year-old Somali American, broke new ground by being the first model featured in the special annual edition wearing a hijab and burkini.
Aden looks stunning wrapped in materials with shades of blue as bursts of orange and yellow weave within the patterns. She has a joyful smile while posing on her side off the Indian Ocean coast in Kenya, where she was born.
Another photo shows her relaxing barefoot on Watamu Beach in brightly colored garments. A third striking pose brings attention to Aden’s facial features while she wears a solid black burkini with red accents.
This progressive photo shoot recognizes diversity among women and the beauty found beyond the amount of bare skin.
Feminism isn’t about what a woman should or should not wear. It’s about having the choice without judgment.
Some women are gloriously happy wearing next to nothing. They are proud of their bodies and want to show them off. Good for them.
Others want more cover, choosing to be more private until they decide when — and to whom — to show their bodies. Also good for them.
All those choices and feelings are welcomed. There is plenty of room along the spectrum of fashion for women to express themselves comfortably.
A burkini is often misunderstood and criticized for being sexist, which is ridiculous. Most women worldwide have the freedom to select their wardrobes.
A burkini is a modern type of bathing suit or athletic wear preferred by Muslim women who choose to wear modest clothing, including a hijab. It consists of breathable fabric designed for mobility in a traditional Muslim style, providing cover from head to feet.
It looks a bit like a diving suit with a top over it. The attire appears more relaxing than the layers of clothes worn up until about 1910.
The burkini was created in 2004 by Australian designer Aheda Zanetti in response to Muslim women not having options in sports or swim wear. It kept some women from participating in athletics, lifeguard jobs and activities around water.
By 2008, the designer had sold about 700,000 burkinis worldwide, Zanetti told the Sydney Morning Herald. These were sold to a variety of women, including Jews, Hindus, Christians, Mormons and those with body issues.
It came under criticism in Europe about 10 years later, with many French cities banning the burkini, citing terrorist threats. It became more controversial as French authorities forced women to take off clothing (some not in a burkini) on the beach or be fined.
That smacks of a manufactured fear and reason to harass women for how they dress.
This Sports Illustrated feature comes down to respecting the choices women make regarding how they clothe their bodies. It’s been a long time coming.
In a video from the photo shoot, Aden talks about the lack of traditionally Muslim models.
“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 said.
Aden was born in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya and moved to the U.S. at age 7. Her family started out in the poverty-stricken sections of St. Louis and then moved to St. Cloud, Minnesota.
She became the first Somali-American to be voted homecoming queen at her high school and the first to be a student government senator at St. Cloud State University.
“I remember thinking, ‘What’s next?’ ” she said.
Aden gained national attention in 2016 as the first contestant in the Miss Minnesota USA Pageant to wear a burkini and hijab. A three-year modeling contract followed.
“It’s not my culture to do pageantry. It’s very much an American culture.”
She has been the first hijab-wearing model on international runways, including in London, Milan and New York City, and on the covers of Allure, British Vogue and Vogue Arabia.
“That’s always been my messaging: Don’t be afraid to be first,” she said.
It’s a pleasant surprise to find the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue showing an open mind to different notions of beauty.
I hope it’s not a one-time publicity stunt. It would be truly revolutionary to continue celebrating diverse women in diverse swimsuits.