As the fashion industry works to widen the diversity gap, there’s no question that we wouldn’t be making much progress without the voices of those like hijab-wearing model Halima Aden, who went from Miss Minnesota U.S.A. pageant contestant to a standard-bearer for cultural inclusiveness in fashion and beauty.

Since appearing on the cover of CR Fashion Book, she’s signed a contract with IMG models and has been on a world tour spreading awareness (and her innocent charm) to a whole generation of women who idolize her for her bravery. It’s important work for Halima who remembers what it felt like to grow up without seeing any public figures who looked like her. “One of my teachers told me to draw the Disney princess who I could most relate to, and there wasn’t one. It hit me at a young age—that made me question whether or not I was good enough. Each princess had a heroic story, but I didn’t have one. I took it very hard.”

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Felix Kim

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Alongside these photographs of Halima in brightly colored hijabs and coordinating makeup looks, she opens up about her own views on beauty as well as some issues that hit her close to home: how mainstream ideals affected her childhood, the problem of skin bleaching in her community, bowing in the face of discrimination, and memories of the country left behind when she entered the United States as an African refugee at age seven.

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What is your idea of beauty?

“Being Somali and being African, beauty for us was always about the lighter skinned girls who were considered to be beautiful. I got a first taste of that when I was six. They used to say ‘Halima cadey.’ That word means light, but also sweet. I had lighter skin than my cousins, and because of that I was told that I was lucky.”

What about the girls who weren’t told that they were lucky?

“As I got older I saw that there were a lot of skin bleaching products in our market…in Asian and African communities. Because, unfortunately, lighter skin is what so many people deem to be beautiful. I know a lot of girls who have ruined their skin from using these products. You see that all the time—girls who go from looking nice, with a healthy, natural brown glow to this faded greyish color. Some of those products have Mercury in them. They are banned in the U.S. but people are still selling them. God made you a certain way, so your skin color and features go well together. Something looks off. And it makes their skin so sensitive that they can’t go out in the sun or even cook because their skin can’t handle the heat. What is so wrong with being black?”

Is there anything being done to help these young women?

“I tried talking to my teacher in 9th grade. I asked if we could talk about skin bleaching in my community. We talk about the ads against tanning and we hear warnings about that all of the time. There are all of these regulations to protect women against the harm there, so why aren’t people talking about skin bleaching? Because it’s happening in minority communities?”

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Who do you think is to blame for all of this?

“Society, media, and the all of the images of blond hair and blue eyes. Everyone is trying to reach that. It’s also family. I could have grown up like the girls I knew who hated their own skin. My mom and my family were celebrated, and they were dark.”

Halima Aden wears all makeup (throughout) M.A.C Cosmetics, on eyes Paint Stick in ‘Basic Red,’ on cheeks Powder Blush in ‘Raizin’

Felix Kim

Did you have strong female role models who steered you towards a better perspective?

“I did, but at the same time, my mother never made any excuses. Sometimes we didn’t have food, but we’d get by. I understood that mentality from an early age. If you’re constantly feeling bad for yourself and blaming others, it drags you down. I didn’t choose any of these things—the civil war in Somalia or for my family to flee the country. For her, it was like, you have to keep moving.”

Which ideals of beauty did your mother pass on to you?

“For her, beauty is so unnecessary. My mom didn’t want me to get caught up with looks. She thinks that a bare face is the most beautiful that you can be.

I started to use lipstick when I was 14. She would say, ‘it’s so unnatural.’ I told her, ‘it looks girly’ and ‘all of my friends do it.’ My mom told me that I should be worrying about school. Eye shadow was a big no no at my house, so I would wipe it off before I came home. Even now, she’s against me threading or waxing my eyebrows.”

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