By Ian Layugan
AS I reflect on how to go from here, Leni’s shoes provided the best metaphor.
So much has been said and written about VP Leni’s shoes – and the lack thereof.
Last February, following a presidential debate witnessed by hundreds of thousands of viewers, her critics tried to eclipse her platforms, rhetoric, and confidence by making one small move the hook: when she ditched her nude, high-heeled shoes after the three-hour debate, dismissing it as a pretentious gimmick.
I single it out as one of the representative moments in VP Leni’s campaign. It is a common trope when speaking or writing about women in power to talk about their fashion choices and articles of clothing. Perhaps more than any other item, shoes appear consistently in popular culture, from art to ads, campaigns to online content.
Even though shoes are not discourses we carry on concerning the next male politician, for VP Leni, this is not a conversation of fashion meets politics. Just maybe, her shoes are just shoes? The anthropologist Daniel Miller opined that we tend to see the message first before the shoe as an item, and we become blind to what he called the “humility” of the shoe as a “thing.”
This in turn renders the shoe a powerful enigma. We tend to use it to overexpose notions of patriarchal oppression or excessive consumption. Imelda Marcos herself coined “imeldific” for extravagance, which brings to memory thousands of shoes in her indulgent collection (The Marcos camp explained that the shoes were gifts of Marikina shoemakers). Women leaders are questioned about their choice of shoes in events (see Michelle Obama’s $540 Lanvin sneakers when she bagged food for hungry children in a food bank). Shoes are designed for all intents and purposes (for the pageant-obsessed Philippines, nude heels are used by queens to give an impression of length).
It is important to remember that we are reflections of the leaders we vote for. Who they are – perceived, actual; their walking and wondered selves – mirror us in ways and weighs. Leni has been called lutang, lugaw, and other bitter conjectures during her term and her campaign. But it was figures, projects, and results felt by constituents, and raved and recognized by outside agencies and experts, that ultimately defined her governance.
As an avid follower of hers, I believe in VP Leni’s brand of leadership, something that she established when she vied for the VP position in 2016 and has lived up to until now as her term is closing: transparency, accountability, and people’s active inclusion in policy making and programs. As an observer, I felt that all this stems from one element that she shares with her family, her circle, and her supporters: her enthusiasm.
A few days after the elections when it was apparent that Mr. Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. would win, a looming sadness swept over social media feeds. As Mr. Marcos’ supporters rose to pride and claimed admission over their votes (some of them just recently and some surprisingly so), VP Leni’s filed in anxiety.
Then suddenly, VP Leni went live on Facebook. She walked us through the moments of her campaign with the trinkets and presents, memorabilia and effects, the durable and delicate items she kept on her floor over the course of her campaign. Losing may make us want to forget, but not VP Leni. Maybe like what her critics are pointing out about the moment she removed her heels, there is no fundamental separation between humanity and materiality. We are not separate from material objects, and the millions of people from various walks of life who gathered in the campaigns are all curated in that room.
“Enthusiasm” came from the Greek “theos” – God – and “en” meaning “within.” In its root context, it is God within. The campaign for Leni was a joy, a celebration that encompasses confidence and inspiration that springs from within. Dissecting her campaign, moments like rallyists singing Ariana Grande’s Breaking Free to video montages on YouTube or TikTok felt like prayer. And isn’t the point of prayer to come together and summon oneself to belong because one has believed? The best campaigns come from enthusiasm – no remuneration or honorarium required.
It was the same zest that VP Leni’s rallies had. In social media, users have documented their walk for and with Leni: pink shoes to carry the motif of the campaign, slippers – some fancy, some tattered – to help brave the burning heat, some sneakers muddy or dusty to attest to one’s geography, and even branded ones to show that their votes can never be bought, and other shoes, styles, and stories of consequence.
Suffice it to say that it was a collective narrative, of bayanihan, now long after the word is starting to tarnish and wane. And of course, of enthusiasm.
Suffice it to say also that campaigns are not cults. We must remain critical and curious regardless of the leader. For a country where religiosity plays an impressionable yardstick for our quality of life and decision-making, we must not gravitate, excluding context, towards excusing evil. Prayer and religion must let us uphold the strictest rules of God. This is seen in VP Leni’s campaign motto of “radical love” (radikal na pagmamahal).
For it also shows the spirit of paninindigan. And good tindig—bearing, posture, and all that – starts with good shoes, or the lack thereof. We want to not worry about the spaces we walk through, nary a thumbtack or a lair or a trap. We want to focus on the work mainly, and once we are comfortable with how we stand up, there is no telling how much we can get done.
VP Leni is passing down shoes too large to fill. But it is not only up for the next VP (who interestingly is another woman), but for us all.
We call rotating between assorted duties wearing many hats. Maybe it’s time to change the metaphor into something humbling, like wearing different shoes. A new administration will be ushered in in a few weeks and the landscape would change once again. As it unfolds before us, so must our footing. What the country needs are people, wearing different shoes, and marching to various advocacies and endeavors, to unite the Philippines for the better.
Even VP Leni has shown such. When she announced turning her office’s flagship program, Angat Buhay into an NGO as her term concludes, it was representative of how this shoe-changing happens.
There must be no lack of platform, resource, or opportunity where work needs to be done. VP Leni’s perseverance and involvement as some critics pointed out are her mere duties. Syempre naman, she did her job. Yet it has always been about enthusiasm and advocacy. Not politics, but public service. When she changes her shoes- not “step down”- soon, so shall we.
Many spaces are waiting for our efforts, resources, and abilities. Wear your shoes or go barefoot but let us never stop walking.