“You have a moustache,” said a Canadian named Paul when I was twelve.

“You have no chin,” I told him.

“So what?” His lip wobbled. “It’s my jaw. I don’t have a well-defined jaw,” he murmured.

When I got home from school, I reflected. Did I feel bad about what I’d said? I didn’t. He shouldn’t have been critiquing my face in the first place. My mother agreed.

“But you only get one face,” she said, smearing a homemade honey mask on hers. I dodged her sticky hands as she reached for mine next. She sighed. “Just, please, take care of it.”

I scowled. Ever since Brad F had bullied me into shaving my legs that one time, beauty, for me, was something other people wanted me to perform. And because other people wanted me to do it, I had very little interest.

In my estimation, my mother was the most beautiful person I had ever known, and would ever know, and she seemed to get by with a good personality and some eyeliner. A trained botanist, she was forever treating her skin with a homemade potion: turmeric for redness, honey for breakouts, yoghurt or fruit acid peels. But beyond simple upkeep, there were assets things that made her stand out, beauty-wise that I started to notice as I entered (yuck) womanhood. She was naturally hairless. I…was not. She loved to dress up for a party. I would much rather go to the dentist than wear buttons. And, absorbing this, she despaired. She had painstakingly hand-made clothes for me, her little doll, and dressed me up through infancy and toddlerhood. And then, one day, I decided I didn’t want anyone to look at me, ever, so why should I draw attention to myself? “Boys don’t have to do any of this nonsense,” I growled. “Boys can just be. So why can’t I?” My father peered over his tub of moisturiser, having completed his elaborate shaving ritual, and reached for his perfectly pressed shirt. “Because looking nice feels nice.”

My parents seemed to enjoy upkeep. I found all of it inconvenient. Why couldn’t I pee standing up, anywhere I wanted? I raged as a small child. Why did body hair matter, and why was I expected to take care of it? Why did I have to be saddled with a period, especially since I didn’t want to have a baby for twenty more years? Why did my hair need to be brushed every single day? And though I understood the practical need to cover my body, why the heck was I required to have so many different kinds of clothes?

Furthermore, it felt unfair that I was expected to devote an entire section of my brain to things that boys didn’t have to think about but somehow got to have opinions on. Periods and peeing were big ones, but I distinctly remember when my male peers started ascribing value to appearance. Each of us girls had a few data points, all different: Heather What’s-her-name, who was nice enough but kind of boring, had a friendly smile and long blond hair. Meena’s beautiful hair was tucked under a hijab, but she had dimples and huge boobs. Cindy Crawford was the celebrity gold standard. These were all things that boys seemed to approve of and find appealing: a sunny demeanour, a “good body.”

But all such assessments made me feel I was constantly being inspected, like poultry, like a heifer. Maybe it was a function of always being the new kid, or maybe I was born like this, but I would much rather observe than be observed. As a young girl, I felt eyes on me when I entered any space, and I hated it when people noticed. Anything. When we lived in the Middle East and my abaya slipped at the souk even sometimes when it didn’t men made kissing sounds at me. I wished the abaya could make me invisible. But it wasn’t limited to creepy strangers. Everyone seemed to feel licensed to assess and comment on my looks. “Your hair is tied back!” said a well-meaning auntie. “Such a nice face, and now we can actually see it.”

To the aunties, a nice face they could see was almost as important as good grades. And they, my mother’s cohort, were all so attractive. It was a whole performance, desi dinner party culture in the 1980s. The aunties would do their hair and makeup and wear elegant saris. They made each other laugh and trained their well-dressed children to make polite conversation. But I was unwilling to participate. Mum could throw a dress over me, but I growled in a corner with a book, hiding behind my hair. “She’s a little grumpy today,” Mum would say with a sigh. I was a little grumpy every day, because life felt like a constant pageant, and I wanted out.

Why weren’t my insides enough? I was a smart, curious person, with a good heart. These traits would have rendered the boys in my class complete. But more was expected of girls. As I navigated middle school, I doubly resisted efforts to tame my hair, to be more feminine, until I grew into a high school woman who dressed like a neglected dude. I hid myself, slouching, wearing sweatpants and my dad’s button-down shirts to high school. I “styled” my hair to cover half my face, and if you ever caught a proper glimpse of me, I was scowling. At the same time, I was setting up a sort of test. If anyone could get past my exterior, I thought my nondescript, prickly exterior they’d find a loving friend and a good hang. But woe betides you if you had anything, nice or mean, to say about my looks.

My parents my stylish, attractive parents groaned, hoping that I’d eventually grow out of it. “WHY?” I grumbled. So I didn’t embarrass them? So I could snag a nice husband? I wasn’t generous in my assessment back then, but they didn’t know what it felt like when people looked in my direction. I felt strange eyes on my skin like fingers poking a bruise, like hot lasers pointed at me at all times. By the age of twenty, I could no longer ignore my looks, because young men wouldn’t let me. “You have such a nice face,” said a terrible boy in my study-abroad programme, looking at me funny, and it felt even worse than the aunties. “If you lost some weight…it would really make a difference.” That settled it, I thought, in a silent rage. I swore I would never buy a scale. If I ever lost weight, that jerk would win. I’d never even own a full-length mirror, just to spite him.

Excerpted with permission from Bird Milk & Mosquito Bones: A Memoir, Priyanka Mattoo, Penguin India.