What makeup means to women

Always fascinated by women's drawerfuls of rouge, shadow and lipstick, Laura Barnett is mystified by what different women choose to do with it. How do you wear yours and where did you learn the art?

I've been thinking a lot about makeup recently. Maybe it's this odd weather we're having – showers alternating with scorching spells of sunshine; the desire to achieve something close to summery, sunkissed skin chased away by warming thoughts of lipsticks in autumnal shades of red and plum. Maybe it's the fact that it has been impossible to escape the launch of the new series of The X Factor, for which the "A-list transformation" of judges Tulisa Contostavlos and Kelly Rowland, complete with airbrush-perfect make-up, has received as much attention as the contestants themselves. Or maybe it's because I heard the news that Tom Ford, the man who made the impossibly gorgeous Julianne Moore look even more beautiful in A Single Man, has just unveiled his own range of cosmetics. According to Elle.com, it comes with a set of quite fascinating instructions: that makeup should always be applied with a brush (should it?); that it should be perfectly blended and diffused (really? I thought I should just dab it on and hope for the best); and that "eyeliners should look lived in and lips soft" (well, that clears that one up).

In truth, though, I've always been quite fascinated by makeup: how much other women wear, which colours they choose, how they apply it. I often see women on trains or buses, taking advantage of the down-time offered by their commute to swish blusher across their cheeks, or expertly dab their eyelids with shimmering shadow. I see these women quickly, almost miraculously, transformed, for the most part, from pallid and tired-looking to doe-eyed and dewy-skinned. Wow, I think. How does she do that? How does she know which colours suit her, and how much to apply? And why, despite the fact that I have a drawerful of the stuff, and spend at least 10 minutes putting it on in the morning, does my end-result never look quite like that?

Each week, I fall upon Sali Hughes's column in Weekend magazine: I envy her expertise, the way she apparently so easily achieves what is, to my mind, the essential function of makeup: to present the best possible version of ourselves to the world. I offer this point before I'm prematurely harangued by my fellow feminists for my fascination with what some of you undoubtedly, and understandably, view as an example of women's oppression by the patriarchal system – the age-old desire to paint our faces as a means of becoming more appealing to men.

I don't believe that most women apply makeup for that reason. I think we apply it for ourselves – or, perhaps, at most, for our (female) friends. I have, for instance, recently become quite obsessed with red lipstick, that scarlet-streaked evocation of glamour. My boyfriend does not seem entirely convinced by the look; several of my girlfriends, on the other hand, have told me it's a good one, and so my obsession continues apace.

None of this is to say that women who choose not to wear makeup always look impossibly dreary: a fresh, unmade-up face will always be more appealing than one caked in unflattering layers of foundation. But go on – indulge my curiosity. How much makeup, if any, do you wear? Have you ever mastered what is, for me at least, that impossible, magazine-generated mirage, the smoky eye? Where did you learn to apply it: from your mother, your friends, a cosmetics-counter tutorial, or through good old trial and error? How much is too much? And to those of you who so deftly manage to put your face on while on a train: how the devil do you manage to avoid poking your eyes out with your kohl pencil?