September 15, 2020 at 10:00PM
Arielle Twist is a major cat-eye connoisseur. The Halifax-based transgender poet, sex educator and visual artist has been wearing black feline flicks ever since she began experimenting with makeup. “I’ve always gravitated toward a cat-eye and a red or nude lip; I haven’t strayed far from that blueprint,” she says, adding that what has evolved is a punctuation of her exaggerated winged liner with rich, dynamic shadows.
For Twist, it’s all a way of accentuating her Indigenous identity. “The features I choose to enhance are often the things I find most beautiful about Cree women: the shape of our eyes and mouths, the way that our cheeks are prominent. My eyes and lips are my two favourite features on my face, so why not highlight them?” she expresses. Reaching for her staple eyeliner and lipstick also connects Twist to her mother and her grandmothers, or kokums as she says in Cree. “I can see the divine femininity that my mother and my kokums have passed on to me,” she explains. “That will always be the first thing I see when I do my makeup. I’m really lucky to have been blessed with a canvas that sings to all the women who came before me.”
This deep connection to her makeup stems back to 2013, when Twist started transitioning. “Makeup gave me access to making my features look more feminine to me,” she shares. “It was like a way to challenge my own gender dysphoria.”
Since then, cosmetics have been powerful tools for helping Twist walk through the world as a transgender woman. “Makeup feeds me confidence to be out there,” she says. “It’s the kindling to the fire in everything that I want to do as an artist.”
Last year, Twist gained national notoriety with the release of her first book, Disintegrate/Dissociate, a collection of 38 poems that speak to some of her most intimate lived experiences: transitioning, sex, love, violence, displacement and more. The paperback is rife with grief and resilience but also holds a space for joy and community. “I believe that my work is honest,” she explains. “Even if it seems brutal at times, that’s just the reality. I exist as an Indigenous brown trans woman in a world that’s dedicated to debating and questioning my humanity, so it’s often painful but also a source of hope, deep love and kinship. People describe it as confessional poetry.”
Born in George Gordon First Nation in Saskatchewan, Twist spent most of her time as a young child in the city of Regina before her family moved to Sipekne’katik First Nation in Nova Scotia. It was a move spurred by bigotry, she believes. “I feel like the Prairies have a kind of gratuitous racism toward Indigenous people that played a part in why we left. My mom wanted to get us out of there.”
Saskatchewan will always be a place that Twist cherishes, she says— “George Gordon First Nation is my birth nation, the homeland of my ancestors”—but she knows she wouldn’t be the woman she is today if she had stayed. “When I think about it, I think about how precarious it would have been for me to be an Indigenous trans woman in Regina. I don’t know if I would have transitioned. I don’t know if I would be alive right now. Growing up, I remember Saskatchewan being a hard place to be an Indigenous person.”
From Sipekne’katik First Nation, Twist eventually made her way to Halifax and in 2017, her life and career changed.
While working as a sex educator at Venus Envy, an award-winning LGBTQ+-friendly sex shop and health information-based bookstore in downtown Halifax, Twist sparked a connection with a trans Canadian author who was visiting for a book launch, which led to mentorship. “We got to chatting, and she asked me if I had ever thought about writing, which I hadn’t,” she reveals. What happened next felt like a whirlwind.
That same summer, Twist’s former mentor invited her to Toronto—a visit that would steer Twist into participating in Naked Heart, Toronto’s annual LGBTQ+ literary festival, that fall. Less than a year later, she had a book deal with Vancouver-based publisher Arsenal Pulp Press.
Twist counts her 2019 book tour as her proudest moment within her short writing career thus far. The opportunity allowed her to travel across Canada, and the young poet was amazed by the audience she was able to reach through her words—Indigenous trans youth in particular. “It was the most eye-opening experience,” she says. “I was able to go to Saskatchewan and talk to youth from my home—kids who looked like me, talked like me. Youth who are doing what I never thought I could do: They’re transitioning in Saskatchewan. I always thought that was impossible. They were talking about my work and me.”
And you can be sure that along every stop on her book tour, Twist rocked her signature eyeliner flick. Because as much as makeup is about celebrating a strong self-image, Twist feels that it also makes it easier for her to fit in with long-held stereotypical norms around feminine beauty. “I can definitely see how makeup affects how people talk to me, approach me and see me—especially in a professional way. I think it makes people take me more seriously.”
In Her Kit
These are the go-to staples in Arielle Twist’s makeup bag.
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