Halima Aden is many things. The first hijab-wearing model to be signed to mega modeling agency, IMG. The first woman to wear a burkini in the Miss Minnesota pageant. She is breaking barriers left and right, but the day she showed up for her Glamour shoot, she was just a bubbly, smiley 19-year-old excited to talk makeup and her dreams of working for UNICEF. Here’s how the former refugee is taking over the beauty universe just by being herself.
First things first: I’m Somali, but I was born in a Kenyan refugee camp, and we came to America when I was seven. We settled in St. Cloud, Minnesota, where there’s a large Muslim population. Still, Muslims make up only about one percent of America, so it’s a very small group and there are plenty of stereotypes about us—we’re not often portrayed as people doing good things. I want to change that. I want everyone to live to their full potential without having to fear someone will try to knock them down or discriminate against them.
So when I competed in the Miss Minnesota pageant last November (seeing Deshauna Barber, a woman in the U.S. military, win Miss USA earlier that year was a big push), I wanted to challenge certain people’s ideas of Muslims, especially around standards of beauty. I wish I could say I was calm backstage, but being the first hijab-wearing Miss Minnesota contestant was nerve-racking. How were Somalians going to react? I didn’t want to let anybody down. But then I thought: It’s Miss Minnesota. I am a Minnesotan. I know I qualify—I shouldn’t limit myself.
My peers wore bikinis, which is fine, but I decided to wear a burkini, a full-coverage swimsuit that’s more comfortable for me. Growing up, I had used my fear of looking different as an excuse to quit choir. The real reason was actually that my Somali family and friends weren’t coming to support me (music is typically frowned upon in our religion), but I blamed it on standing out. I wasn’t going to quit again. For me, being in a pageant was about taking chances and not worrying about the outcome.
And the reaction to the pageant has been 98 percent positive. While I didn’t win, I got signed by a huge modeling agency, IMG, shortly after and walked in the Yeezy show—then editor Carine Roitfeld put me on the cover of CR Fashion Book. After that: a Vogue shoot, an Allure cover, and an American Eagle campaign. Now I’m starting to feel a lot of pressure; people are looking to me to represent Muslim women, and the last thing I want to do is create a negative image. But I’m up for the challenge, and I’m finding my own path.
Halima Aden is a 19-year-old Muslim American model who has dreams of working with UNICEF. Follow her @kinglimaa.