Halima Aden explains why she quit modelling: ‘Fashion can be very exploitative’

‘My hijab kept shrinking and got smaller and smaller with each shoot’

Kate Ng
Thursday 22 July 2021 10:29
Halima Aden, the first hijab wearing model for Sports Illustrated

Muslim model Halima Aden has spoken out about the fashion industry’s exploitation of young models and said she chose to leave modelling when she felt her beliefs were being compromised.

Aden, the first supermodel to wear a hijab, quit the industry in November 2020. She told Tommy Hilfiger in a new interview for the BBC World Service that she felt like “a minority within a minority”.

The 23-year-old said that towards the end of her modelling career, she felt “so far removed from my own image” and had lost control of her identity.

“The last two years, I trusted the team on set to do my hijab and that’s when I ran into problems,” she said, describing a fashion shoot in which jeans were placed on her head instead of a regular headscarf.

“My hijab kept shrinking and got smaller and smaller with each shoot,” she added.

Aden, who was born in a refugee camp in Kenya, signed with IMG Models in 2017 and went on to become the first hijab model to feature on the cover of British Vogue.

However, she said she experienced “so much internal conflict” in the last two years of her career.

“When I started I thought: ‘This is going to open the door for so many girls in my community’,” she said.

“I never got to flip through a magazine and see someone in a hijab, so to be that person was a dream come true.”

The former supermodel said the fashion industry believes models are “easy to exploit”, adding: “Fashion can be an industry that is very exploitative”.

She also called for more diversity among makeup, hair and stylist crews who work on the set of shoots, and said: “There needs to be diversity in the makeup crew, hair [and] stylists. It’s not just about having a diverse catwalk. It’s also about the people behind the scenes.”

She also spoke about becoming the first model to wear a burkini in Sports Illustrated magazine, describing it as an “amazing experience” and adding: “We made quite the statement for it to be featured in Sports Illustrated. We pushed the needle.”

However, she felt she was walking on “a thin line” because she was “constantly trying to appease my Muslim fans but also keeping it very fashionable”.

Aden said she returned to the refugee camp she was born in at age 21 to find it had doubled in size, and asked: “How is possible that in this day and age there are still refugee camps?”

Asked if she felt she could make a difference in the lives of people living in refugee camps as an international supermodel, Aden said: “It’s coming from a selfish place when I say I wish I had somebody who’s walked in my shoes, who could come back to the camp, look me in the face and say, ‘This is what hope is, and it’s okay to dream and have a life and you deserve that, outside of the camp, outside of these four walls, you deserve to dream big and prosper’.

“I hope that one day we get to a place where organisations like UNICEF are not needed, and every child has exactly what they deserve. It just breaks my heart when I think of some of these numbers… it gets me so emotional.

“But I see the hope and I think more success stories like my own are out there because refugees are resilient people, they’re strong-minded people who have so much to give, so much love to give.”

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