Nike's Modest Swimwear And The Power Of Feeling Cool

Courtesy of Nike.

Swimsuit shopping means something different to every person with a body. The Muslim head covering also holds many meanings, but, in any case, wearing the hijab means dressing with a degree of coverage that is at odds with the swimwear industry’s bikini-or-one-piece norm. Add to the equation how the hijab can be a magnet for harassment, and it’s hard to imagine a more emotionally charged garment than a modest swimsuit.

When I started wearing a hijab as a young teen, I knew I’d spend the rest of my life dealing with ignorant questions, weird looks, and worse. But I never felt limited in my day-to-day life. The one exception was swimming. There was no way I was going to wear two-piece bathing suits to city public pools and beaches like my peers did. Nor did I want to draw attention to myself by wearing the DIY swimsuits Muslim women wore back then. A tunic-length cotton T-shirt and spandex leggings, soaked through with water, is about as uncomfortable as you can imagine. Even when it was just me and my female friends swimming in private, I felt equally self-conscious in a revealing swimsuit and being the only one not wearing one. I skipped a lot of pool parties.

Then online shopping was invented, and burkinis, which had been around for ages in Muslim-majority countries, were suddenly available everywhere. Muslim women across North America and Europe rejoiced. Personally, I didn’t want anything to do with burkinis. They mostly came in bright colors (lots of teal and magenta) with metallic or floral accents and, in some cases, rhinestones. The styles might look right on a beach in Dubai, but here in Canada they would be called tacky. Plus, when non-Muslims found out about burkinis, the swimsuits became a punchline. The word itself, though coined by Muslim women, started to seem like a joke about how “other” we are, as different as a burka is from a bikini.

Courtesy of Nike.

Once women started actually wearing burkinis at lakefronts and YMCAs, the suits were deemed controversial. In 2016, dozens of towns in France tried to ban the suits from public pools and beaches; women who did not comply were harassed and ticketed. In the United States, people who swim in a hijab are routinely mocked and humiliated, kicked out of public pools, told to leave the country, and have the police called on them, according to a report by HuffPost's Rowaida Abdelaziz. As swimming became less impossible for Muslim women, it became inherently political.

When I first heard that Nike had made modest swimsuits for Muslim women, I thought about how apolitical I felt buying the Nike Pro Hijab more than a year ago. The Pro Hijab wasn’t the first athletic hijab on the market — Muslim-owned companies have been making them for years — and I don’t even work out. I walked into a sporting goods store and bought one because it looked cool, the same way I would buy an athleisure track jacket. Would getting a bathing suit soon be as simple as that?

Dubbed The Victory Swim Collection, the new product line includes a full-coverage two-piece swimsuit and swim separates (full-coverage tunic, leggings and hijab), which will be available in February. According to Nike’s Martha Moore, the lead designer of the swimsuits, the products were made to fulfill a need her team perceived at pools and beaches. “We observed, as designers do, people not being in the water,” people being Muslim women standing by the sidelines and on decks, watching their children swim. “For designers, that’s a sign that we must be able to solve that problem,” she said.

Courtesy of Nike

Nike began its research by speaking to Muslim women around the world, many of whom stopped swimming when they began wearing hijabs. Moore said these conversations left Nike with a checklist: The suit had to be water-repellent and lightweight, move through the water with ease, and come with a hijab that stays put. As for existing modest swimwear options, Moore’s team found they were too stretchy, too heavy, not stylish enough, “not the same level of product we would expect with the Nike swoosh on it.”

By the time I spoke to Moore, I had already tested out the new Nike swimsuits at a community center’s women-only swim hours. She is right. The Victory Full-Coverage Swimsuit is a quantum leap for modest swimwear. It’s lighter than the other burkinis I’ve tried on, with a drainage system of hidden mesh panels that prevent it from taking on water and bunching. Like the Pro Hijab, the Full-Coverage Swimsuit looks cool enough to wear outside the context of sports. It will still stand out on most beaches, but it is objectively stylish and subtle, with a silhouette that’s flattering and not too clingy. The built-in hijab even has a pocket-like fold that holds hair in place. The two-piece outfit feels like being listened to, and costs an eye-popping $600. The somewhat affordable Victory Swim Separates ($188 for tunic, leggings, and hijab) look more like existing burkinis, but feel considerably lighter. My only complaint is the suits’ limited XS-XL size range (Nike says it is looking into expanding sizing soon).

It’s tempting to interpret the Victory suits as a political statement, but Moore spoke purely from the perspective of design. “My team solves problems for athletes,” she said. “Our real focus was on how we can afford access to more swimmers and more women to be in water and around water in a way they couldn't before.” Marketing materials that came with the suits say the goals of the Victory Swimsuit Project are “expanding sport to enable women to play” and “opening the door to female athletes worldwide.”

Courtesy of Nike

Nike believes Muslim women have much to gain from headache-free swimming and, as HuffPost's Abdelaziz points out, Nike has much to gain from our participation in sports. “The Muslim market is so profitable,” she told me, “and Muslim women are willing to go the extra mile to spend more money if something is made with good quality and fills modesty requirements.” According to The Washington Post, the modest fashion industry will be worth worth $373 billion by 2022. I genuinely loved the more expensive model and its attention to detail informed by Muslim women’s input. But Abdelaziz and I felt conflicted about how few Muslim women would profit off it.

Still, Abdelaziz believes Nike has the power to make sports more inclusive. In spite of the increased visibility of hijabi athletes such as fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad and triathlete Khadijah Diggs, high school competitors still face prohibitive rules around hijabs and modest swimwear. Recently, 16-year-old Noor Alexandria Abukaram was disqualified from an Ohio cross-country race for wearing a hijab without getting special authorization. Abdelaziz thinks that as more Muslim women ascend the podium wearing a sponsor’s logo, those rules will change: “When Nike creates a uniform, it sets a precedent.”

Then there’s the normalizing power a giant such as Nike has. Toronto-based sports activist and writer Shireen Ahmed is skeptical of feel-good marketing to Muslims. But, “the more we see modest swimwear in places that we haven’t seen it before, the more it becomes a part of swimwear,” she said. “Nike is helping expand the idea of what swimwear is.”

The absence of cool, modest swimwear has been, in retrospect, a legitimate barrier to swimming in my life. But plenty of Muslim women I know love their swimsuits. They avoid public swimming areas because anti-Muslim hate is a fixture of our society, and they fear the worst. That’s where you bump up against the limit of normalization: The worst doesn’t care what logo you’re wearing or how cool and confident you feel. Making swimming inclusive requires making it safe to be a visibly Muslim woman in public. That will take more than good design.