11/05/2013 06:01 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

And What Will the Pretty One Have?

The local shoe store in my hometown was run by a father and his son, a mustachioed pair who were well-liked and friendly. Sitting on a corner on Main Street, the store was long and narrow, like a bowling alley, and they had a small door for the kids to walk through, which was a novelty for us. Even when I grew too tall for it, I would still duck through the door and giggle.

One day, we skipped into the store for a new pair of shoes, my little sister and I. She of the long, perfectly curly hair and pert nose. Me, of the waist-length, mostly straight hair with glasses and long, skinny limbs. I had sharp clavicle bones that stuck out, in my mind, like knobs perched atop my shoulders. I ate everything in sight -- my parents called me the Hollow Leg -- and I was still a rail, wearing slim Gloria Vanderbilts and ribboned barrettes that mimicked my coltish legs.

I chose a pair of penny loafers. They were the shoe de rigeur at the time, like tiny leather dress shoes. They looked horrid on me. I tried on a pair of black-and-white saddle shoes instead, and they suited my feet, reminding me of the cheerleader I wanted to be. The salesman shoehorned them onto my wide right foot, beaming. I smiled back, elated. I was already a shoe kind of girl, and new-shoe smell was intoxicating. The salesman boxed up my old shoes and let me wear the new ones around the shop, strutting in front of the mirrors, big and small.

At that moment, he turned to my sister. Petite. Adorable. Smooth-shouldered.

Smiling widely under his dark mustache, he said, "And what will the pretty one have?"

What will the pretty one have?

I froze. The world spun a little bit, shook me up, and spit me out. My new shoes, looking so sparkly and gorgeous a minute ago, looked gray and drab. The magic was sucked out of the room right through the vents in the ceiling.

I didn't cry, though. No one noticed; my mother was looking at the shoes displayed on the wall and didn't hear a word of it.

The comment burned in my head the rest of the day. And for a while, most likely, because I didn't forget such things easily.

He was just kidding, someone might say.

He didn't mean it, someone else might think. Or, surely, you heard him wrong. I'm sure he didn't mean it the way I took it; he really was a nice man all of the years we shopped there. I wasn't mad at my sister, either. I took a punch for her once when a kid stole her Barbie clothes and I marched over to get them back; we didn't have anything more than normal sibling rivalry as young girls. We've been best friends since high school.

I went through the awkward years, much like most teens and pre-teens. But this comment from the shoe salesman stuck with me, right or wrong. A couple of years later, when a boy on the bus in junior high school told me that I had a big nose, I contemplated plastic surgery for many years. More years than I care to admit, in fact.

Why do we focus on the one negative thing and not the 1,000 positive things?

This was a topic of discussion at dinner recently with a table full of grown women in their 30s and 40s. We remembered cruel things other kids had said to us, and careless comments from parents and stepparents.

You need to go on a diet.

That dress makes you look fat.

You'll never be picked first for kickball. You are not good at it.

It's a pity your ears stick out like that.

You're too tall and gangly.

You are so shy that you'll never get a date.

You are not very good at science.

You're annoying. You're a terrible friend.

It's hard to forget the labels, too. In one family, one child could be "the smart one" and one "the attractive one" and one "the slacker" and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

My friend Leslie heard my story of the boy who made fun of my nose, and a little later in the evening, she leaned over the table and said, "Kristin, I think your nose is beautiful. It's perfect for you, and you're gorgeous." A smile lit up my face and just like that, I loved it a little more too. I didn't know that I needed her words anymore, after so many years, but it made a difference.

Last year, a girl who went to my high school lashed out at me with one of the most hurtful comments I could have imagined: Your babysitter is raising your son while you work. Mother to mother, I can't imagine too many sentences that are more intended to hurt right to the core. I didn't forget her words, but I have reminded myself that she was a mean-spirited girl back in high school, and somehow I escaped her wrath back then. As an adult, I wonder what insecurities drive her that she is still so sharp-tongued. And I began to feel sorry for her.

I have a boy, and I'm not sure how boys internalize comments like this; I only know how the women I know have reacted to their own inner soundtracks. I can't protect my son from hurt, but I can try my best to teach him how to handle it.

I can teach him to focus on the positive while putting the negative where it belongs: in the proper ratio. We are our own worst critics.

I can teach my son that people who say mean things, intended or unintended, are feeling mean about themselves or have had too much meanness directed at them. They are people with a lot of hurt in their lives too; it's impossible to feel happy when you are hurting others.

I can teach him to turn the other cheek when necessary, and to assess risk in every situation. Fighting back, with words or fists, isn't always the answer.

I can teach him that he doesn't have to use ugly words to make himself look better. In fact, it makes us look smaller.

I can hope that he's better at taking himself less seriously than I did as a teenager. I hope he's better at coming up with a snappy one-liner without zinging someone else in the process. I can hope he learns kindness in our family and uses that as his greatest superpower to let anything roll off his back.

I look at him and wonder how I could have created someone so perfectly beautiful. And I remind myself that I am beautiful, too. And I won't believe otherwise, anymore.