When I think of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue I think of bikini-clad, semi-nude entertainment models. Sexualised images of women akin to a Playboy magazine cover. I understand that sex sells. But, when I saw their latest coverstar, the Muslim Somali-American model Halima Aden- photographed wearing a number of different hijabs and burkinis- I felt conflicted.
Hijabi women are taking the fashion world by storm. Many magazines have featured women wearing a hijab on their covers. This in itself troubles me, as there seems to be a blurred line between diversity and religious/cultural appropriation. At times, I have found it disingenuous and, in some cases, an act of tokenism; to throw women on a cover without understanding who they are and what they stand for. Be it hijabi, plus-size or anything else which makes them 'diverse'.
Aden has become an instrumental figure in the boundary breaking which has happened in fashion in recent years. In 2016 she became the first fully-covered Muslim contestant to compete in the Miss Minnesota USA pageant. She went on to become the first hijab-wearing model to appear on the cover of a major USA magazine when she was featured in US Allure in 2017. Then in 2018, she made history again when she appeared wearing a hijab on the cover of British Vogue, the first in its 102-year history. She's also walked for designers including Max Mara, Alberta Ferretti and Philipp Plein.
Recently, with the rise of Islamophobia, the hijab has become a polarising statement which was never meant to be its intention. The root of hijab in arabic is “hajaba” which means to hide or conceal from view and is meant to represent modesty. To detract the male gaze and for society to focus on what Islam asks of you.
Many women find it liberating as it allows for them to not be judged on just their bodies and more on the attractiveness of their character. Even without wearing a hijab, I consider myself to be quite modest. I don’t wear revealing clothes and have never had 'sexy' in my vocabulary when describing myself. Not for religious reasons but because I never felt the need too. Being modest doesn’t start and end with covering your hair.
So, when I came across the image of Aden gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated’s June Swimsuit Issue, I felt uncomfortable. In all her glory, she wrote on Instagram “don’t change yourself...change the game”. But I believe the game is changing. Women of all kinds are gracing magazine covers and finding their paths, using their voice to create change.
Yes, change the game but I don’t feel like we ought to compromise on what you inherently believe in to fit yourself into someone else’s game. Is this game change saying Hijabi women can also be sexy? I failed to see how laying on a beach wearing a tight swimsuit could be called progressive.
Aden looks great. Beautiful and confident. She embodies what hijabi women should feel. That they can belong and can do anything and everything other women do. So when I saw the cover and caption I thought, “why do you want to belong on a magazine cover that represents everything you personally don’t believe in?” A magazine that objectifies women into their stereotypical category of “sexy” with no real context of anything else but their bodies.
Just because you aren’t showing skin doesn’t mean you’re automatically modest. Sexiness comes in many forms. But wearing a scuba tight swimsuit showing your entire figure is the opposite to what is expected of you the moment you decide to be a hijabi. Just because one has completely covered their skin does mean modesty is maintained.
Furthermore, I’m not sure what audience this cover shoot is aimed at. Do you know any women who buy the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated? The Swimsuit Issue is long known to be an annual exercise in the sexualisation of women. Is Sports Illustrated trying to reach a new audience of Hijabi women while hoping the masses of men who buy this issue will now see modest women as sexy?
Halima Aden undoubtedly has an important role to play in the fashion industry but the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue is not the right path to take if the message you’re trying to portray is that women are more than sexual objects for men’s pleasure and nothing more. Perhaps being progressive means asking Sports Illustrated to sack the concept of objectifying women annually and sticking to what they’ve always represented and celebrated. Sportsmanship.