During the holiday season we are often busy shopping for loved ones, gathering gifts together to show our love and appreciation. Most of us realize that it is the feeling behind the gift that is most important—the gift is our way of showing our love for those closest to us, even if it’s just a token reminder.

Yet, the process of gift giving is an excellent example of how a human feeling can be transformed into a material object for others to see. Our Christmas gifts or Hanukkah gifts are, in essence, our attempts at converting love into something real and quantifiable. Love no longer holds its basic nature as a feeling, but instead becomes something symbolic or representative of that feeling.

So what is this transformational process? How does love come to be wrapped up neatly in a bow?

As we all know, the very nature of love is something that cannot be touched, only felt. In selecting to show our feelings with gift during the holiday, we take emotions that cannot be measured and make them into an entity that can. Love changes from something that is indefinable and uncontrollable into something that is.

So what does this have to do with eating disorders?

In many ways, the idea of translating love into a gift can be used to understand the struggle with anorexia and bulimia. In the case of eating disorders, however, it is not a gift but rather food that that is a stand-in for our feelings. What we eat (or do not eat) is often just emotion in solid form.

Every person is different and every person may give food different meanings. In anorexia, for example, food may be represent negative feelings that we don’t believe we can digest and don’t want to have inside us. In bulimia, food can represent safety or happiness that brings us away from our problems for a while. Suddenly, our relationship to food reflects the push and pull we are really having with our own moods and feelings—only now our feelings are in a form that we can hold, touch, and control. Just like our holiday gifts, our food can now be acknowledged as much or as little as we would like.

We all know that the holidays can be stressful. We travel, we’re busy, there are extra expenses, and we’re often caught up in difficult family dynamics. If you’re struggling with food over the holidays, remember to stop and ask yourself what feelings the food might represent for you at this time. As with your gifts, it’s the feeling behind the food that’s most important.

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