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Illustration by Mahgul Farooqui

Halima Aden’s Photoshoot on Sports Illustrated — I'm Not Buying It

The magazine’s inclusion of a woman in a burkini and a hijab feels more like an arbitrary grab at political correctness than an admirable effort to include the disenfranchised. The move is both strange and over-hyped.

This year’s Sports Illustrated Swimsuitissue features a model wearing a burkini and a hijab. Yes, you read that correctly. The magazine renowned for its bikini clad, semi-nude women posing provocatively on beaches for over 30 years has an almost fully covered woman gracing its 2019 cover. Halima Aden, the covergirl, was also featured in Vogue Arabia last month along with two others donning the hijab which was also a first for Vogue.
Times are changing, magazines are no longer presenting a homogeneous, idealized archetype of beauty. Publications are gravitating toward inclusiveness and are making efforts to reflect a wider demographic. We are now seeing plus size models grace covers, as well as models of determination and of differing racial backgrounds – to name a few groups of people who have previously been excluded from representation in the fashion world.
In Aden’s case, Vogue is a fashion magazine and modest fashion, catered to the more conservatively dressed, is making gains in the clothing industry. It makes sense to put a hijabi model on the cover of the world’s most coveted fashion magazine. Sports Illustrated, on the other hand, is a sports magazine with a predominantly male readership that blends sporting commentary, news and analysis, with excessively sexualized women in nothing but body paint, or a necklace to cover their breasts. Sports illustrated is popularly equated with sports and sex, and it’s clear to see why that is. Generally speaking, inclusion is a positive thing but the medium matters.
However, it is important to know that the publication is trying to reestablish itself. Sports Illustrated’s success previously thrived on featuring scantily clad and over-sexualized women on its cover as a way to catch the eyes of its predominantly male audience. If this method no longer works, was the appropriate adjustment to feature Aden? It seems more like a desperate attempt for the sports journal to reposition itself in an increasingly politically correct culture. The magazine did not put her on the cover for the sole sake of inclusion or diversity, it was a marketing tool, and not a very smart one. The magazine is trying to survive waves of a cultural change that no longer accepts the “sex sells” packaging it was born out of.
Many have voiced concern over wider contexts in which clothing like the burkini or hijab are utilized, criticizing the cover for promoting or normalizing oppressive patriarchal tools. As someone who grew up in a culture with an obligatory dress code, I find it difficult to celebrate a burkini on the cover of Sports Illustrated. I, along with many others, have first handedly experienced a culture in which pressure exists for women to cover their body and hair almost entirely in a constrictive floor-length garb. It makes it difficult to just accept the equation of burkinis to bikinis. They both serve different purposes and arose out of very different circumstances. Although, it is respectable for a woman to dress modestly as a spiritual commitment if wearing a burkini is a means to do so, she of course should have the choice to. However, to say they are both liberating in the same sense is inaccurate.
Despite political debates surrounding the burkini, for women who commit to covering their bodies, the burkini empowers them to be able go into the beach and swim. No longer are women or girls who cover limited by the fact that they cannot wear a revealing swimsuit, they have another option of swimwear. Putting Aden on the cover has encouraged many girls and women to go out and swim. As Aden said in an interview with Aden Sports Illustrated Swimsuit,“You don’t have to wear a bikini if you don’t want to wear a bikini. Wear a burkini if you want to be a part of it. I wanted to show girls that they had an option. A lot of girls opt out of swimming because they don’t think they have one.”
Much of the public has applauded Aden for making history, breaking barriers and glass ceilings, but the celebration surrounding the cover feels patronizing. Aden’s was hardly an act of bravery that deserves applause. Simply put, a hijabi model was put on the cover of another magazine.
For many women the hijab — and by extension the burkini — is a religious garb and it seems an inappropriate context to put a religious symbol on a magazine like Sports Illustrated. Would they have put a Jewish model wearing a tichel, or a Sikh woman wearing a turban? The double standard is something worth thinking about. Representation for minorities in fashion plays a huge part in de-stigmatization, but leveraging inclusion movements just to improve a public image is questionable at best. I neither celebrate nor condemn a hijabi wearing a burkini on the cover of Sports Illustrated but, if anything, it is both strange and over-hyped — I don’t buy it.
Elyazyeh El Falacy is a staff writer at The Gazelle. Email her at
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