It’s a lifelong struggle. I know it now.
I didn’t know it when, aged seventeen, my breakfast consisted of a sausage roll, two chocolate bars and a full packet of jaffa cakes, consumed in the school tuck shop at 11am.
I didn’t know it when, at university, I replaced my love of sport with a love of alcohol and chasing girls.
Nor did I know it, a recent graduate, as I wolfed down the free office pastries and giveaway donuts, or went all out at the monthly ‘free bar.'
I know it, almost ten years after giving it up, when I returned to the rugby pitch for the weekly festival of mud, pain and anguish.
I didn’t even know it when I took part in a body-transformation piece for a famous male fitness magazine.
But I know it now. Because, this Easter weekend, having wrestled with him, compared training notes for our forthcoming half-marathon race, discussed our plans to buy motorbikes, and generally acted like the child that remains inside of both of us, my brother and I did something I never thought I would do. We compared belt holes.
Now, comparing belt holes may seem insignificant, and rather strange, to you. I understand that. What could possibly be interesting or noteworthy about belt holes? What do I even mean by belt holes? What is going on?
Well, the comparison of belt holes was once an annual tradition in our family. Each year, at the extended family gathering, my grandfather and his brother, my great uncle, would have a competition to see who had the thinnest waist. The measurement of choice was not inches, or even those new-fangled centimetres, but belt holes.
With great ceremony, the competition would be announced, and both would remove their belts. One of the two belts would be chosen – though not without argument – and one by one they would find out who could get the belt onto the tightest hole. Usually this would be done in several stages, each discovering that their opponent had been able to reach an unexpectedly tight loop, resulting in much body contortion for them, and much hilarity for the spectators, as they wriggled into a tighter hole. In hindsight I actually concerned that they may have done their internal organs irreparable damage. But watching their faces, desperate to avoid looking uncomfortable throughout the ridiculous process of holding their bellies in, was one of the joys of my childhood. Miraculously, no belt was ever harmed.
Eventually, following significant argument, widespread discussion and, usually, a final attempt by the loser to reach a very obviously unattainable goal, a winner was announced. Full of pride, their chest would puff (their stomach still held in) while the vanquished opponent slunk into the shadows for the remainder of the party or, in the case of my grandad, loudly protested the result.
This spectacle, though enjoyable to watch, was never something I could relate to. But I know it now.
As a child I remember finding it bizarre that these two chaps, by now in their late sixties or early seventies, would be interested in such a competition. Growing older, I found it bizarre that they didn’t simply adjust their diet, or take on a little more exercise over the course of the year, to guarantee their victory, if it mattered so much to them.
Alternatively, if they really didn’t care over the course of the preceding year, then why did it become such a big issue when the belt was whipped out. Why not simply stand back, say how much they have enjoyed their pies this year, and display their burgeoning belly with pride?
Now, I understand.
Looking back, it started at university. Although my calorie intake must have been stupendous during my teens, I needed the energy. I ran everywhere. If I ran, I could have an extra five minutes in bed and still make it to registration (just) in time. Or I could just have one last moment with my girlfriend before heading off to lessons. Or I could play one more game on Football Manager before heading home. Running made sense.
I also played sport. Not in the way I do now, with one rugby match a week, a game of five-a-side football and some reluctant trips to the gym. Back then I played sport almost constantly. I had formal football training three times each week, as well matches on most Tuesdays and Saturdays – I had no idea I was playing more than any human could reasonably expect without signing professional terms with Manchester United. And I certainly hadn’t heard of a ‘rest day.' On the days I didn’t play football, I would play hockey or rugby or do some athletics. And even on the days I did, I would normally be found outside having a kick-around when I should probably have been doing some homework. Unless I was sleeping, or forced to sit in a lesson, I was either running around or kicking a football.
Until I headed to university, that is. My active lifestyle became a sedentary one. My love of sport became a love of partying. And that was the beginning of the end.
My metabolism took a little time to catch up with this change, of course. Possibly even until my first year as a graduate, I retained a very similar shape and weight. Even then, I could still turn out for the occasional game of five-a-side and put in a decent performance. And, with a steady girlfriend, I actually viewed my slowly increasing poundage to be a matter of pride, a badge of increasing age and responsibility. There was still no way I could relate to my grandad’s fixation with his brother’s belt holes.
Most importantly, I still had youth on my side.
In the world of work, a sedentary lifestyle didn’t have the allure of old. Partying wasn’t quite as fun when the next day was due to be spent staring into a computer screen rather than wallowing in bed. And sitting at a desk for eight hours straight very quickly became just a little tedious.
And so I rediscovered my love of sport, throwing myself back into the game of rugby, that I had deserted ten years previously. The tackles were harder, the wingers quicker and the props far uglier than I had remembered. I picked up injuries, bruises and dents to my ego with alarming regularity. But despite all this, I slipped back into the routine with disgusting ease. I scored tries, and I really enjoyed myself. It took a little dedication, but I didn’t find it difficult to satisfy my competitive instincts. My body did as it was told, and I was happy.
So happy, in fact, that when the opportunity presented itself for me to take part in a very clichéd ‘body transformation’ project for the UK’s most famous men’s fitness magazine, I jumped at the chance. I was entirely safe in the knowledge that my body would do as I wanted it to. The final shirt-off, tense your abs photoshoot was something to look forward to, rather than dread.
For the first time ever, I ditched the starchy, unhealthy foods that had formed my staple diet, and even reduced my alcohol intake. I headed to the gym more often, and more convincingly, and generally did as I was told.
It took a little getting used to, it must be said. While many of the changes I was asked to make were undeniably good for me, that didn’t make the increased exercise, or mass consumption of green vegetables, any easier. More worryingly, certain things I was advised to do didn’t seem quite so good. Zero sugar, very limited carbs at best, both replaced by unlimited amounts of caffeine to stem the hunger, seemed an odd way to live. And my lack of energy seemed to confirm that. But still, I did as I was told.
Even as the final countdown to the shoot started, even as things became increasingly odd, I did as I was told. Completely starving myself, downing whiskey on the journey to the shoot, doing press-ups between shots, I did as I was told.
The magazine seemed pretty pleased with the results. I, too, wasn’t displeased. Although, after such a rigmarole, I must admit I had expected a little more.
That was the first sign of what was to come.
Two years later, I headed up to Yorkshire for our Easter family gathering. A holiday on the horizon, I had belatedly noticed the creeping expansion of my waistline, and pulled out the bag of tricks I had been given by the magazine. In fairness, I hadn’t really had any choice but to confront the issue – in the changing room before a rugby game, one of the props had laughed at my paunch. Later, still smarting from the insult, I had told my girlfriend of my plans to be in possession of a six pack by the time of our holiday. Her piercing laughter is still ringing in my ears.
And so it was that with unrelenting intensity, I had spent the best part of a month without sugar, bread or potatoes, downing humongous Americanos in between gym sessions. Lifting more than ever before, I was pleased with myself. Perhaps I was on my way back. My beloved girlfriend would be made to rue her mirth.
Pulling up to park my car, I could already see my younger brother’s grinning face. Yet something had changed. My heart sank. He looked… skinnier.
Like many adult siblings (I imagine) who don’t see each other for months on end, our relationship is a combination of constant competition and reversion to rampant childishness whenever we’re in each other’s company. I knew at once that our respective physiques would be mentioned within seconds of my arrival. And I also realised that, despite all of my hard work in the preceding month, close to a decade of maltreatment, aside from the odd window of vanity, had finally taken its toll. I wasn’t prepared to compare belt holes. But I also wasn’t prepared to lose.
And so began the weekend.
We wrestled. Little and often. Sometimes with dead-arm punching. Always with gusto. Flinging ourselves perilously close to ornaments and elderly relatives. In our mid-twenties, we wrestled and we wrestled until eventually our mother and our girlfriends told us to stop. I think we called it a draw.
So instead we played Jenga. Or we compared our career prospects. Or our half-marathon training. Always we competed. Constantly. It must be quite exhausting to be around. Eventually, unsurprisingly, after a particularly fierce board game, something struck a chord with our mother. It reminded her, she said, of my grandad and his brother.
“You’ll be comparing belt holes next,” she joked.
He looked at me, and I knew it was unavoidable. Before either of us had moved, before anyone had said another word, I was sucking in my stomach, and fearing the worst.
There was no six pack, but a paunch. I did not win. My age had finally caught up with me. But still I tried and I tried to reach that next… belt… hole.
In future, I think I’d prefer it if we stuck to Jenga.
Dale Bilson's words have appeared in The Times, Huffington Post and Men's Health. Based near Birmingham, UK, his interests range from family and education to green tea and travel. He tweets at @dalebilson.