Beyond high heels

My March 10, 2015 column.
To express solidarity with women, a number of men walked in high heels last Friday, March 6, in various parades held in the cities of Quezon, Cebu, Davao and in La Trinidad, Benguet.  This was the second year that the activity called “In Her Shoes” was held in this country (similar campaigns have been held in other countries), but the presence of actor Dingdong Dantes this year provided publicity mileage;  most media networks picked the story and the picture of Dantes and his group of men walking precariously on high heels became viral over the weekend.  Sadly, celebrity is a double-edged sword.  On one hand, Dantes called attention to what could have been a ho-humm event.  On the other hand, the focus became Dantes and his high heels rather than the cause.  
But if the success of this year’s parade is any indication, we can already see what succeeding parades will look like—more actors and politicians lending their celebrity status to the campaign.  It will be fun, but am not sure it will be good or right.
The sight of bulky men trying to balance themselves and walk confidently in stiletto shoes can be cute.  Unfortunately though, the campaign also offers quite a number of possible pitfalls that can be counterproductive in the long run.  The key is to make sure that the advocacy does not get lost in the hoopla.
First of all, high heels may be closely identified with women and may be a good metaphor for empathy and for the delicate roles that women try to balance every day of their lives.  But it’s also a symbol of oppression for many women so I am not sure that we want to reinforce the idea that a woman is defined by her Manolo Blahniks.  A lady friend of mine told me there are just too many anti-women norms and standards of beauty that continue to be perpetuated such as that bit about how heels make a woman look sexier or her legs look more shapely.  Why should such standards prevail, anyway?
And then there’s that other thin line that the organizers must work very hard not to breach —the possibility of the whole campaign being turned into a caricature of gays and transgenders.  There’s a staple image in Filipino movies that many directors continue to pass off as comedy: Ridiculous-looking bulky macho men in drag, wearing makeup, and shod in killer high heels.  Let’s hope “In her shoes” does not degenerate into a joke because equality for women is such a crucial advocacy to be made fun of.
It’s difficult to be a woman, particularly in a culture such as ours.  Sure, Filipino women have more options available to them now; they can vote and run for office, pursue careers, and express themselves sexually—at least most of the time.  But there’s still a lot of institutionalized barriers and gender bias against women even in a country that has already elected two women Presidents and produced a female Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.  When Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago gets mad at the Senate, she is called hysterical but when Senators Alan Peter Cayetano and Antonio Trillanes do a dumbed down version of the same, they are called fighters. 
Working mothers are still expected to take care of the home and their children—even if they earn more than their husbands.  My mother was a public schoolteacher during the day but she also had to cook our meals, prepare our baon, supervise our homework, clean the house, do the laundry, etc.  She would go to bed late and wake up very early.  Far too many women still live lives similar to that of my own mother.  
And yes, women are still largely penalized for having a womb.  Most women carry the full burden of pregnancies, often left to fend for themselves.  Even more tragically, there are people in the world—many of them supposedly spiritual and moral—who continue to champion moves to deny women the right to information, access to support, and decision-making on something as basic as women’s reproductive health.  And lest we forget, there are still companies that deny employment to women on account of pregnancy or because they are unwed mothers.
So yes, we must try harder to provide equality to women.  We certainly can begin by having more empathy for their situation.  But we have to go beyond tawdry campaigns that oversimplify the issues  and reduce them to a cute image.


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