May 3, 2019 11:22 am
Updated: May 3, 2019 11:23 am

COMMENTARY: Holding the applause on SI Swimsuit’s model in hijab and burkini

From November 2016. U.S. beauty pageant first as contestant Halima Aden wears hijab, burkini.


Like all brands, magazine brands represent certain values and images. Vogue — Women and fashion. Forbes — Money and power. O — Live Your Best Life! The list goes on. Likewise, when I think of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, I think of hyper-sexualized women and the “male gaze.”

So when news broke this week that 21-year old Somali-American model Halima Aden will become the first Muslim woman to grace the 2019 cover in a hijab and burkini, it was a pretty big deal.

READ MORE: Meet the first model to wear a burkini in Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition

As you can imagine, Twitterverse went into a frenzy. From a range of negative comments based in anti-Muslim sentiment to plain ole angry men upset they wouldn’t be seeing as much skin this issue, the rage was real.

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Cover model Aden shared her own thoughts while promoting the issue. “Growing up in the States, I never really felt represented because I could never flip through a magazine and see a girl wearing a hijab.”

She said having the opportunity to do the cover was “literally a dream come true.”

In an Instagram post on Monday, she added: “Being in Sports Illustrated is so much bigger than me. It’s sending a message to my community and the world that women of all different backgrounds, looks, upbringings … can stand together and be celebrated.”

Many others on social media agreed and praised both Aden and the magazine for the cover.

Is SI Swimsuit really getting woke?

Regardless of the social media chatter, the cover is such a grand departure from the norm that I question SI Swimsuit’s motives. “We strive to continue to spread the message that whether you are wearing a one-piece, a two-piece, or a burkini, you are the pilot of your own beauty,” the editors declare. But I still get a strong impression that men, not women, are the ones flying this plane.

As the New Yorker’s Alexandra Schwartz wrote of SI Swimsuit last year, “Back in the day, it was reliable masturbation fodder, a late-winter gift to the flesh-starved straight-male gaze.”

And even today, it only takes a quick scroll through the @SInow Twitter feed to see the throngs of gorgeous, young women seductively sprawled in the sand, donning barely-there bikinis.

WATCH BELOW: Halima Aden becomes first model to wear burkini, hijab in Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition

Granted, SI Swimsuit has had other “firsts,” like Ashley Graham as the first plus-sized cover model and last year’s unfortunate execution of a #MeToo themed shoot, but even those have felt more of a play for publicity than genuine interest in changing the gaze.

Since Graham, I haven’t seen many other plus-sized models featured, nor have I seen much in the way of empowering women. In the same vein, I don’t quite believe that this magazine is quite so much interested in celebrating Muslim women and their agency or choice to don a burkini as it proclaims. I personally think it is much more interested in the clicks it will get from featuring a controversial cover under the veil of being “woke.”

The fashion world has had so many missteps this year when it comes to culture, from Prada and Gucci accused of blackface to Burberry’s noose sweatshirt, that many have begun to question whether some of this was done purposely, perhaps just for the sake of an “any publicity is good publicity” story. Truth be told, I didn’t know that Katy Perry had a shoe collection until she was called out for her blackface sandals.

READ MORE: Why top brands keep producing products that prompt backlash

Could it be that SI Swimsuit wants to simply stir the publicity pot, just to get back on a fading radar? The magazine doesn’t hold the same prestige, influence or sales it once did. As a former staffer even said to The Ringer: “I don’t read it anymore. And it’s my profession.”

With the grim reaper seemingly at every publisher’s doorstep, it’s not so shocking that SI Swimsuit may be going for some shock value to help bring back some intrigue.

Politics of burkinis on the beach

The sad truth is controversy sells. While designed to be a “form meets function” swimming garment, the burkini has became much more of a political symbol. Originally designed by Australian, Aheda Zanetti, the burkini covers the entire body except for the face, hands and feet and is made from conventional swimwear material such that swimmers are not weighed down by wearing streetwear that absorbs water.

However, in 2016 many cities in France banned the burkini, going as far to arrest or fine those caught wearing burkinis on the beach. While the ban was later ruled unconstitutional, it is still a point of contention in France and has also been under review for a ban in Germany, Austria and Geneva. The contentious debate around this garment (ironically mostly by non-Muslims, who aren’t the ones it was designed for) is surely not lost on the editors of SI Swimsuit.

WATCH BELOW: Burkini debate hits Montreal


All representation is not good representation

While representation is definitely something to be celebrated, I’m cautious about how much we are celebrating this particular magazine. Although not a Muslim woman, as a South Asian woman I can relate to the feeling of not being seen in mainstream media until very recently. But the medium matters. It is different being included as the “other” like Apu in The Simpsons versus a character like Mindy Lahiri in The Mindy Project. Similarly, not all magazines and their intentions are created equal.

Despite my views on SI Swimsuit, when I read Aden’s own words, I feel uplifted, inspired and am here to cheer her on all the way. “I never fit that stereotype of beautiful, but when I noticed other people weren’t challenging that or representing me, I thought, it doesn’t hurt to be the first,” she said.

SCOTT THOMPSON: Whether a bikini or burkini, is it progress or exploitation?

Born in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, then moving to the United States at age six, trailblazing women like Aden who have defied the odds, astound and inspire me. She has already made history in being the first woman to participate in the Miss Minnesota USA pageant wearing a hijab and burkini, and place as a semi-finalist. In June 2017, she became the first hijab-wearing model on the cover of Vogue Arabia, Allure and British Vogue.

I hope to see Aden and other beautiful, diverse women gracing many more magazine covers as we redefine and reclaim beauty ideals. But from SI Swimsuit, a magazine that has historically objectified women, I’m going to pass on taking its approval for what is and isn’t beautiful.

Meera Estrada is a cultural commentator and co-host of kultur’D! on Global News Radio 640 Toronto.

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