“My grief was a heavy, despairing sadness ... despair rooted in the fear that love did not exist, could not be found.”
bell hooks’ words in “all about love: new visions” are so simple, yet nothing I have ever read has impacted me so profoundly. Perhaps it is my fear, written before me in black and white: Love simply did not exist.
People around me always pursued skinny women, light-skinned women, or well-dressed women. Girls who were “put together” always flew past me, for I—a whopping 227 pounds, diet Coke clutched in hand—was just not in their league. Love would not be found by me, and in my mind couldn’t be found by any plus-sized woman.
I once told an acquaintance about a friend with a body type like mine who had a boyfriend. The boyfriend was a handsome, loving man who clearly chose to be with a woman who didn’t fit societal beauty standards.
“He’s probably cheating on her,” she responded, not out of malice but expectation. Years later, we found out he had been cheating on her, despite her light skin and eyes and being a devoted, loving partner.
“Everywhere we learn that love is important, and yet we are bombarded by its failure,” hooks writes, and her argument appears to apply. Perhaps love did not exist. The concepts hooks discusses in “all about love” seem applicable to almost everybody.
“The truth is, far too many people in our culture do not know what love is. And this not knowing feels like a terrible secret, a lack that we have to cover up,” she writes. Love had no meaning that could be taught to me.
In a conservative, patriarchally dominated country like Pakistan, girls are never taught any real definition of love. There is romantic, lustful love you see in popular media. For example, Rory Gilmore sleeping with a married man because she had always been in “love” with him. Then, there is familial love, which hooks writes, “We learn about […] in childhood. Whether our homes are happy or troubled, our families functional or dysfunctional, it's the original school of love.”
Most people I know can count on their hands how many times their parents said, “I love you.”
My own parents commonly expressed their "love" by pressuring me to get dangerous, invasive gastric sleeve surgery that would remove two-thirds of my stomach, just to lose weight and possibly "find love." Pre-surgery side-effects included feelings of worthlessness, while post-surgery includes being unable to eat for two months, vomiting, and apparent likability, according to my parents.
Perhaps on some level, they did have good intentions, but this brings the conversation back to hooks’ first chapter where she emphasizes the need for a solid definition of love.
“Definitions are vital starting points for the imagination. What we cannot imagine cannot come into being,” hooks writes. She acknowledges that, “Had I been given a clearer definition of love earlier in my life it would not have taken so long to become a more loving person.”
A definition of love is crucial to identifying when one is not loved and may be trapped in a loveless or abusive situation. A definition also helps us become better providers of love for our own families, and romantic and platonic relationships.
However, even without a definition, women of color are forced to be providers of love. Those who can’t or refuse to be mothers, wives, or girlfriends are considered deviants. When I was at odds with my parents, I was still expected to love them unconditionally. When my friend found out her partner was cheating, she was still expected to be empathetic and “hear him out.”
Society demands women supply most love-related notions, including financially providing for the family, especially in brown households. Regardless of her well-being, my mom is always ready to make my father a fresh roti. Regardless of my own needs, I always must share with my brother. When true love is not given or taught at home, but women are still forced to give love, how then do you love? How can a fat brown woman find romantic love with no absolute definition of love? How do you love someone or accept someone else’s love when you have been told your whole life you are unworthy of it?
How do you learn to love yourself before you can truly give to someone else? Perhaps hooks’ chapter on self-love may have some lessons in store for me…
bell hooks died on December 15, 2021, leaving behind a legacy of writings and critiques that shared feminist theories. She preferred to spell her name with no capital letters, a practice respected in this piece.
Mashael is a writer, editor and aspiring journalist currently working in Karachi, Pakistan. She is passionate about women's rights and working towards an intersectional future. Her interests include binge-watching TV shows, trying new food and reading (both trashy novels, and non-fiction). You can catch her on Twitter @mashaelshah