When Halima Aden rocked the swimsuit portion of Miss Minnesota USA in 2016 wearing a burkini, she didn’t envision it as a political statement; she just wanted to compete. But the 20-year-old Somali-American model soon had DMs flooding in from young Muslim girls across the country. Since the pageant, she’s walked runways from Max Mara to Yeezy, booked a Fenty Beauty ad, and starred on magazine covers. Here’s the story of how she first discovered the burkini—and how it proved to be a much better (and chicer) swimsuit than sweatpants and a sopping-wet T-shirt.
Up until the Miss Minnesota USA pageant, I didn’t know that there was a modest swimsuit [I could wear]. I didn’t know about burkinis when I was in school, and my parents didn’t mention them. But I really wanted to do this pageant, and there was a swimsuit portion.
I thought, ‘There has to be a swimsuit that’s more covered; if my grandmother was at the beach, she wouldn’t be in a two-piece.’ So I typed into Google something like, “What do older women wear at the beach?” And scrolling through, I found pictures of women wearing pants and a shirt made of swimsuit material. When I discovered it, I was like, ‘Of course!’
Before then—this is embarrassing—I used to wear tights and a T-shirt to the pool. Yes, regular tights. And they were not comfortable. I even wore sweats one time! I felt like I was breaking the pool rules, and I think it was even more immodest, my shirt lifting up to my neck.
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I have worn traditional swimsuits before. At my apartment where my mom lives, sometimes it’s just women at the pool. In those cases I’ll wear my one-piece or bikini. But I’ve never really felt comfortable with men in the pool, so I opted not to. Modesty [isn’t defined by] one person, but to me, that’s my normal, something I was raised around. Dressing modestly is my way of feeling comfortable in my own skin and practicing my beliefs. (Plus, I can’t swim—so when I’m flailing around, I’d rather be around girls than boys!)
The pageant was a learning experience for me and the organizers as well. But it was just a matter of asking: Can a burkini work? It was an immediate yes, and that’s really all I had to do.
I got mine from Modanisa, a navy blue burkini with gold appliques. The top came down to my mid-thigh and the pants to my ankle. I tried it on in my best friend’s dorm room, and I just remember thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, why did it take me such a long time?!’ I had a flashback to all my non-water-approved “swimsuits” and thought, ‘Imagine if I had known about this. My life would have been so much easier.’
In the end, I think the swimsuit portion was my favorite segment of the pageant. I wore the burkini, and the other girls were in bikinis, and it was really nice to come together on stage with all different swimsuit styles. I liked the fact that mine was unique, and I’m sure that every girl on that stage felt the same about what they were wearing; you have to find the swimsuit that works best for you. I had moments where I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, the swimsuit on that girl looks so good!’ But I wouldn’t have changed anything on mine. I felt really cute and confident in it.
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Afterwards, [many Muslim] girls talked to me about entering the pageant and joining their swim teams. Like myself, there were many girls who didn’t know about burkinis until I wore one on stage. It made me want to go back to my high school and tell the Muslim girls that you no longer have to opt out of sports. You can join the school swim team, and you can play tennis, and you can find uniforms that are modest. You don’t have to look like everybody else; you can still follow the rules and be a part of the team.
Last April in Abu Dhabi was my first time wearing a burkini to the pool. I paired it with a cute, little tan turban. Burkinis make me want to accessorize. I want to pair a black burkini that I’ve been looking at with a Nike hijab to give it more edge. The Nike Pro Hijab is designed for athletes—let’s say you want to play a beach game, like volleyball, it keeps everything tucked in and allows you to move. Burkinis come in so many different styles and colors, and if you do your homework, you can find one that’s stylish and complements your figure really nicely. Unlike many traditional swimsuits, you can also get them tailored to suit you, which I’m going to do for my next one.
Burkinis bring out the confidence in me and make it possible for me to participate. I can still go swimming, I can go to the beach, I can have pool days, and I don’t have to conform or feel the pressure to wear a bikini. Plus … they’re cute!