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St. Cloud model wears a hijab, burkini in Sports Illustrated's swimsuit edition

Halima Aden of St. Cloud, no stranger to breaking boundaries, has appeared in Sports Illustrated in modern -- but modest -- attire.

Halima Aden of St. Cloud, no stranger to breaking boundaries, has appeared in Sports Illustrated in modern -- but modest -- attire. Leila Navidi, Star Tribune

Halima Aden, a 21-year-old model from St. Cloud, is very much accustomed to the word “first.”

She was the first Muslim homecoming queen at Apollo High School and first Somali student senator at St. Cloud State University. In 2016, she became the first contestant in Miss Minnesota USA to wear a hijab and a burkini. She reached the semi-finals.

In 2018, she became the first hijabi woman on the cover of British Vogue. And on Monday, she became the first to wear a hijab in Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition. 

It was, she told CNN, a message to women like her -- women who may have grown up never seeing people who looked like them in magazines. She wanted to tell them that it’s “OK to be different.”

“Being different is beautiful too,” she said.

There was, of course, immediate backlash from right-wing Twitter -- cries of "SHAME ON YOU SPORTS ILLUSTRATED" and "Sports Illustrated Swim Suit Edition Goes Full Libtard. Sad." Plus complaints that the magazine was somehow promoting "Sharia Law" by showing what many Muslim women consider to be a pretty normal day at the beach. Be that as it may, the responses online have, for the most part, been overwhelmingly positive. Aden and Sports Illustrated have both been praised for changing fashion industry standards.

But if you look at the photos, there isn't that much of an adjustment. Aden's sleek and colorful in her full-body suit, draped in a Caribbean-blue wrap and beaming under the playful knot of her headscarf. The only difference between her and the other models is how much skin is visible. 

The photos, by photographer Yu Tsai, were taken on Kenya’s Watamu Beach. In a way, it was a return home for Aden. She was born in Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp after her mother fled Somalia. She moved to the United States when she was 7 years old.

She has since become a UNICEF ambassador to Kakuma -- her proudest accomplishment.  

She told Sports Illustrated that during the photoshoot, she kept thinking about her younger self -- in the same country but worlds away from her luminous repose on the beach. The line between where she ended up and where she began forms a baffling, beautiful circle.

“I don’t think that’s a story that anybody could make up.”