Halima Aden, the Muslim model who became a trailblazer in wearing her hijab on catwalks and in photoshoots, denounced the fashion industry and its exploitation of young models.
Aden left the industry in November 2020, citing compromised beliefs and feeling like a minority within a minority.
In a new BBC World Service interview with Tommy Hilfiger, Aden says that towards the end of her modeling career, she felt she had lost control of her identity. The past two years I have trusted the crew on set to make my hijab and that’s when I ran into problems, she said, like jeans placed over my head. instead of an ordinary scarf. The way they styled it, I was so far removed from my own image. My hijab kept shrinking and getting smaller and smaller with each shot.
In 2016, Aden was the first fully covered Muslim contestant to enter the Miss Minnesota USA pageant. She then signed with IMG Models.
When I started I thought: this will open the door for so many girls in my community, she says. I’ve never had the chance to flip through a magazine and see someone in a hijab, so being that person for the other girls was a dream come true. But the last two years [of my career], I had so many internal conflicts.
An initial clause in her modeling contract was a guarantee that she would have a locked box to change into. But over time, that caused problems, she says. I was on a set with another Muslim model and I was given a box to change into and it wasn’t. It didn’t go well with me, she said.
Reacting to stories of other models being exploited on set, Aden says in the interview that people in the industry think models are easy to exploit. Fashion can be a very profitable industry. Speaking about the mistreatment of the hair and makeup of color models on fashion sets, Aden says: There has to be diversity in the makeup crew, hairstylists (and) stylists. It’s not just about having a diverse podium. It’s also about the people behind the scenes.
In 2019, Aden made history when she became the first model to wear a burkini, designed by Tommy Hilfiger, in Sports Illustrated magazine.
It was such an amazing experience when you consider the story of [the burkini], she says. We have people who ban it on public beaches. We made all the statement to have it featured in Sports Illustrated. We pushed the needle. Although she made a statement, she said the experience was not all positive.
I felt like it was a thin line I had to walk, she said. I would disturb members of the Muslim community. [I would hear] comments like, This burkini is way too tight and Why would you shoot for a post [like that]? I felt like I was constantly trying to appease my Muslim fans, but also to stay very fashionable. Because some young fans sent me a message saying: We want to see you in new looks; we want to see your scarf [tied] differently.
Aden says that by leaving the industry, she hopes she has inspired younger models. If I did something, I gave the models a chance to express themselves, she says. I felt a great pressure being the first Muslim model to wear the industry hijab and I felt a sense of responsibility towards the girls who came after me.
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