People are staring at Halima Aden, and it’s for one of two reasons: She’s dressed very differently from everyone else at this New York City restaurant, and she’s stunningly beautiful. The people gawking at the model include a family in matching pastel-blue sweaters, a jet-lagged Italian couple, and a bevy of thin blondes swaddled in Mansur Gavriel accessories. And also me. We’ve met for Sunday breakfast at a restaurant that overlooks Central Park and sells $20 lemon-ricotta pancakes. Aden is wearing a version of what she wears every day: an ankle-skimming long-sleeved dress and a cinnamon-hued hijab (head scarf, if you’re unfamiliar) that frames her perfect face like a cameo necklace. Even the braces gleaming on her teeth look glamorous. The answer to why people are staring is probably c) all of the above.
But Aden is not thinking about this. She’s thinking about French toast, and specifically about whether it will be OK on her system given that she had heartburn the night before. “What are you, 50?” I ask. “I know,” she says, giggling as though heartburn were just another quirky frolic on the route toward becoming a globe-trotting model. The French toast is deemed OK; she takes hers with a heavy pour of maple syrup and a thick frosting of butter. The sweetness and the braces and the fact that she chugged a hot chocolate as an aperitif before breakfast make Aden seem even younger than her (very young) 19 years. If she were about two feet shorter, she could pass for a tween.
Not in front of the camera, though. Like any model, Aden in real life is a different animal from Aden in photos. In photos, she can look beguiling or innocent depending on the tilt of a cheek or the lift of a brow. When she appeared at the fall 2017 Yeezy presentation in a fawn-colored faux-fur coat, pointy heels, and a jet-black hijab, she looked like the ruler of some futuristic civilization that we’d all be lucky to join. Strolling down the runway at Max Mara in a sumptuous camel coat and trousers, she looked like a tall glass of honey. And at Alberta Ferretti, she seemed right at home goofing around backstage with Gigi Hadid. If her otherworldly beauty makes her a natural beside the blondest Hadid, Aden’s biography is starkly different.
Born in a refugee camp in Kenya, she moved to the U.S. with her mom at age seven and grew up in St. Cloud, Minnesota, a town of about 65,000. The summer after graduating from high school, she filled out an application for the Miss Minnesota USA pageant, which awards scholarships to winners. The pageant accepted her. Then a tiny obstacle presented itself: the swimsuit portion of the event. Aden was raised Muslim, and strutting across the stage in a bikini didn’t quite accord with her interpretation of Islam; she prefers to dress modestly, wearing a hijab in public and clothes that aren’t too short or too tight. She asked the pageant organizers if she could wear something with a bit more coverage. “Absolutely,” they said.
It is tempting to thrust meaning onto Aden, to label her, to turn her into propaganda. In a contentious political and social environment, it would be easy to see her as a poster child for the resistance. A woman in a hijab on the cover of a glossy beauty magazine (or walking down a major runway, for that matter) could be viewed as a counterweight to a Muslim ban. Is she a symbol? Maybe. But she doesn’t live a symbolic life; she lives a human life. If there is symbolism to be read into her, it is in our work, not hers.
One thing to know before we continue: Not all Muslim women opt to cover their heads. “It’s how I interpret my religion,” Aden points out, “but there are women who are Muslim who choose not to wear the hijab. That’s something people often forget.” Aden started wearing hers at eight years old, in imitation of her mom (“Every little girl looks up to her mom so much — that’s your first hero”). Now she’s more reflective about her decision. “Society puts so much pressure on girls to look a certain way,” she says. “I have much more to offer than my physical appearance, and a hijab protects me against ‘You’re too skinny,’ ‘You’re too thick,’ ‘Look at her hips,’ ‘Look at her thigh gap.’ I don’t have to worry about that.”
Indeed. As with any decision to be even a tiny bit non-average, however, there are complications to wearing a hijab. Being stared at is one of them. Being teased is another. Yet Aden shrugs off both circumstances: Sure, she was bullied in middle school, but isn’t everyone? “I had friends who weren’t wearing it, and they went through bullying, too. It was a tough time — everyone just wanted to be mean.” And now? “If you think people are against you and that you’re a target, things will start appearing that way. I just go about my day, and I don’t think anyone is out to get me.”
The world of Western high fashion that Aden has been whirled into is slowly catching up. Dolce & Gabbana launched a collection that included hijabs last year, and H&M featured a hijabi model in a video campaign the year before. Nike has developed a lightweight “Pro Hijab.” Advancements like this are either big wins for inclusion, or opportunistic attempts to capitalize on a giant (and largely underserved) market, or both. But whether the underlying motive is empowerment or profit, brands are sending a clear signal when they serve Muslim women at a time when anti-Muslim sentiment is on the rise: Fashion is for everyone.
The runway still shows us a narrow sliver of humankind — mostly white, mostly thin, almost always young. Aden has yet to meet another model who wears a hijab. And she herself is still figuring out the intricacies of the profession, like how to avoid getting foundation on her scarf when the makeup artists are doing their thing (surrounding your face with tissue helps) and how to sleep on a plane (pro tips: Get a window seat and use your tray table as a headrest).
For now, the Yeezy-wearing, boundary-demolishing young model in front of me is focused on the immediate future. This includes getting her braces off, finishing her glass of pineapple-banana-orange-pomegranate juice (which she holds like a champagne flute), and getting to the airport in time for her afternoon flight back to Minnesota. Next week: London.