I Finally Read bell hooks’ All About Love & Not To Be Dramatic, But It Changed My Life

I was in my second year of uni the first time I heard of bell hooks. As a baby feminist, I was stunned by her assured takes on politics, race, and class, and as the years went by, I found myself reaching for much of her rich bibliography in my desire to understand the nuance of intersectionality in society at large and in my own culture. hooks influenced much of my praxis, but there was one aspect of my personal politics that was left untouched by her work: my love life. 
There’s a good chance that you’ve heard of or have even read hooks’ 2000 book All About Love: New Visions. Love isn’t rocket science or quantum physics, hooks posits in All About Love, yet we’ve made it so complicated that it feels almost impossible to achieve. In her usual straightforward but insightful style, the beloved Black feminist author reflects on the complicated relationship that so many of us have with love and challenges us to rethink our position on it through simple ways. Her words had people all over the world in a tearful chokehold; readers all over Blue Ivy’s internet have shared emotional testimonials about the book’s transformative effect on their understanding of the nature of true love in all its forms. The book, many of them explained in viral TikToks, helped them understand how and why they’d become so cynical, and it empowered them to activate a new lease on life. 
I needed some of that revelation.
To be clear, I consider myself to be well-versed in all things love-related. A certified lover girl, if you will. Whether it’s familial love, platonic love, or romantic love (self-love is a bit more challenging, but more on that later), I love love and have considered myself its greatest advocate. But as much as I’ve obsessed over the concept of love throughout my life, I recently noticed that in my late 20s, I’d also become somewhat detached from the concept, particularly when it came to my own love life. I’ve read all the romance novels, watched all the rom-coms, and I’ve given pretty good advice to my single friends every cuffing season, but it still was difficult to have a healthy personal relationship with love. I knew love was real, and that people were experiencing it all around me…I just didn’t know (or fully believe) that it was possible for me.
In 2022, I got into my first big girl relationship and fell in love for the very first time. I was (and still am at times) overwhelmed by the intense feelings that came with being in a committed relationship, but even more so by the level of work it takes to sustain it. For all of the romance content that I’ve consumed in my 30 years, no amount of Jane Austen, Nicholas Sparks, and Jasmine Guillory could have prepared me for how much active unlearning I had to do in order to not completely derail the special connection I was cultivating. Without knowing it, I had developed a complex about love: an intense scarcity mindset about what I felt I could receive in a relationship — or if I was even deserving of it. Because of that insecurity, I told myself that, if anything, being alone wasn’t all that bad, and if worse came to worst, I could always default back to solitude. This mindset may have protected me throughout my single years, helping me bounce back from even the most painful of letdowns and breakups, but in a relationship, it worked mostly to my detriment. 
Long before I got back into the dating game, I’d already been working with my therapist on my deep-rooted insecurities and my tendency to resort to extreme behaviour in order to protect myself. But even with consistent therapy, I was still having a hard time actively addressing that anxious-avoidant attachment, and when I started dating again, I found myself slipping into my old habits and throwing my typical internal tantrums: deleting text message threads on a whim, stonewalling, dry texting. I was scared. I spiralled.
Photo: Karjean Levine/Getty Images.
In that anxiety, I put off reading this book for as long as I could. hooks had dragged me in the past, challenging my stance on race, gender, capitalism, and media, but questioning my vantage point of love somehow felt too…real. I already felt so unstable and insecure — what if her words underscored all of the negative things I was already thinking about myself? You’re not good enough. You’re not worthy. No one will ever stay. 
Obviously, I could’ve benefitted from tapping into All About Love sooner. As I was avoiding the book, my partner and I were going through a rough patch. Even the smallest things were turning into a fight, and I could feel myself slipping back into protective mode. I’m mature enough to admit that I was part of the issue. More accurately, it was my understanding of what love was supposed to look like that was a problem. Media and pop culture tells us that love is about feelings. From Romeo and Juliet to Olivia and Fitz — yes, I still believe Shonda Rhimes gave us one of the most epic love stories of all time — lovers are ultimately controlled by their feelings. Our heart is supposed to tell us what we do, and we follow it to the bitter end, where we’ll either find our happily-ever-after or meet our tragic demise. But in the real world, hooks asserts, we actually have more agency; love in all of its forms is the powerful sum of our choices and the actions we take.
In the early chapters of All About Love, hooks repeatedly cites psychiatrist M. Scott Peck’s definition of love, which hinges on the idea on our will to nurture each other’s growth. “Love is an act of will — namely, both an intention and an action,” Peck explains. “Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.” That concept alone seems so straightforward, but in practice, it’s much harder to execute. We tend to see love as an urge or an innate desire that’s activated against our will, but in reality, it’s something we do have power over — a concept that’s been essential for me in feeling some agency in my romantic relationship. If I’m choosing to love this person, they’re also choosing to love me, which means that the more we understand each other, the more we can choose to love each other in the right ways. Love is what will bring us together. It’s what will make us fight for each other. It’s also what will make us stay. 
As much as it’s about our choices, hooks writes, love isn’t necessarily something that we can predict or influence the outcome of. Love has no guarantee. There's always a risk in loving someone, in truly loving them. All we can do is try our best, show up with full hearts and open hands, and hope that what we’ve found is real. Still, so many of us are so hung up on trying to force an outcome in our love lives. In my own relationship, I saw myself trying so hard to sway our trajectory in a certain direction and getting frustrated when things didn’t immediately go exactly my way. I had a very specific image in my head about what love would look like for me, and it hurt when real life didn’t play out the way I’d hoped. Some of our worst fights stemmed from those differences in expectations. 

Love is what will bring us together. It’s what will make us fight for each other. It’s also what will make us stay. 

The more that I read All About Love, talked to my therapist, prayed, and sat with my most uncomfortable feelings (instead of pretending they didn’t exist or criticising myself for feeling them), the more that I realised that my execution of love had to be less prescriptive and more creative. What I thought were “standards” were actually limits that I’d put in place to use as an excuse to dip out of situations that scared me. To get deeper in my relationship, I had to be willing to let go of those ideals and be brave enough to imagine new possibilities. If the two of us wanted to make things work, we’d have to create a new reality for ourselves, and the only way that would happen was with an open mind and an open heart. 
That’s kind of the whole point of All About Love, and the reason why so many of us have had such a visceral reaction to it. Tackling big concepts like gender, race, and capitalism from an activist slant is important, necessary work, but without love, the free world we’re all striving for simply isn’t feasible. Love in all of its forms is the fuel behind these radical movements, the cornerstone of the future we want so desperately. It’s an ongoing process marked by reconciling with our feelings — the good and the bad — unlearning bad habits and ideas, and making choices every single day. Love isn’t easy, but it is possible. And, hooks reminds us, it can be beautiful if we choose to see it that way. We just need new vision. 
Want more? Get Refinery29 Australia’s best stories delivered to your inbox each week. Sign up here!

More from Books & Art