The Strong One

The Strong One

In full gear: Zoe John, fighter

Warning: Some aspects of this article may be very upsetting or triggering for those who have experienced, or know someone who has experienced, an eating disorder

For a long time Zoe John thought herself as too fat. She was teased, starved herself, and wanted to kill herself. Then the Welsh woman began to play American football against – against men.

Zoe John said she never would have thought that her body would one day be worth something. But then her American Football coach called her to the front at the end of season dinner, her teammates cheered and Zoe got tears in her eyes. The coach talked about her monumental strength and how strong she had made the defence of the Cardiff Valkyries. He gave her a shiny gold medal. On it it said “Most Valuable player”. For the first time said Zoe John “I was proud of my 87kg”. 87 kg. When you talk to you Zoe john, hear her roaring laughter, you feel spirit for life, and when you find out that with the age of 24 she is doing a PhD in sociology at Cardiff University, you ask yourself what the problem is with 87kg spread over 1.72 metres.

However it was not even 2 years ago that Zoe John saw her body “shameful”, like a husk of meat, “as useless as an empty sack of potatoes”. She was ashamed of her size, hated her thighs, her stomach, her round face. Since a child Zoe wanted to be out of her body. “This wish would have almost killed me”, she said.

She has always been a bit chubby, Zoe tells us. At primary school in a small town in Wales, Pembrokeshire, she was the fattest child in the class, her classmates called her “fatty”. In secondary school, when lying on the floor, her P.E teacher shouted at her “Stand up Zoe, you look like a beached whale”. She never had real friends.

Zoe’s best friend was the fridge. After school she would stuff herself with cheese sandwiches and chocolate cake. Her parents didn’t notice because they worked several jobs and came home late. Often Zoe spent the afternoons with her grandmother. She meant well for her granddaughter, and often allowed many sweet foods.

“Stress eating” as Zoe calls it, still could not solve her problems with depression. For a long time now she was no longer angry anymore about her classmates and bullying, but instead she was angry with her body – which she believed was the root of all evil. One evening at home she stood in the mirror, held her stomach in both hands and thought about how she could cut off “the excess weight”. “Preferably I would have taken my own life if I hadn’t have lacked the courage”

Zoe John is not alone with these types of thoughts. More than 1.6 million Brits suffer from eating disorders, almost 40% of all 7-21 year old girls and women are unhappy with their figure. Even in Germany anorexia is has become a mass phenomenon, which is sparked by body culture and with the obsession of self-image in social media.

Zoe said at that point she wasn’t aware that she had a problem. “At school that they showed us how to put on a condom, but no one ever spoke to us about unhealthy eating behaviours”. With any weight that was put on the frustration grew. As a teenager she would lock herself in her room, take a kitchen knife and scratch her thighs bloody. “My body was to pay for its obesity”. She watched fitness adverts for hours on TV, and begged her mother to buy her a ‘stomach-away’ belt. Zoe hoped that the electrical pulses in this device would make her thinner. It didn’t help, the stomach remained.

Together they are strong: The players of the Cardiff Valkyries

I had enough of feeling weak said Zoe John

“He’s never seen a woman with such force”

At the age of 18 Zoe had enough of the empty promises of adverts. She moved to study to Cardiff and joined the gym where no one knew her. Daily she ran for 40 minutes on the treadmill and at kickboxing she hit her fists and shins against the pads until she was black and blue. She got on the on the scales every few hours and admired the Facebook photos from female boxers who only weighed 57 kg. “I wanted to be as thin as these women” she told us.

Training turned to addiction, eating to torment. Zoe divided nutrition into 2 categories “clean and dirty”. Vegetables and fruit were good, fatty and foods rich in calories were bad. However she still ate as little as possible, and stopped eating after 5 o’clock in the afternoon. The smaller the portion, the bigger the effect she thought.

The missing nutrients made Zoe tired. She fell asleep in lectures, and she constantly got stomach cramps. “It felt as if an invisible force was sucking all the energy from my body”. When she could no longer deal with the hunger and had a binge, she would be plagued with feelings of guilt. For giving in she would punish herself with extra training.

After one and a half months Zoe had lost 13 kg, her parents began to worry and asked if everything was okay, but the daughter kept quiet. It was too embarrassing for her to tell her parents about her obsession with becoming thin. She told herself she didn’t have a problem. She didn’t know that eating disorders would destroy her body and soul. “I believed if I was thinner I would have more friends”. For a long time she couldn’t talk to men, too ashamed of her own body. After she got the courage to approach a man in the fitness studio, he robbed her of her last bit of self-worth. After a few months he became annoyed with her eating disorder, screamed at her that she should keep her “silly problems” to herself. Zoe believed she needed to become thinner in order to be attractive for him again. Even just after half an apple she put her finger down her throat. From anorexic behaviours came bulimia, the binge purge syndrome. A wretched, vicious circle.

With bulimia came pain. Headache, joint pain, throat pain caused through her fingernails that scratched her throat when she made herself sick, and her head from the choking jerking forward. Her hands always smelled of vomit. “No matter how much soap I used I couldn’t get rid of the smell”.

Zoe’s body cried for help, but she never went to a doctor. “I was convinced I wasn’t thin enough to be classed as being ill”. Her body mass index was ‘normal’ “that’s how numbers can be misleading”. Only as she left her boyfriend after one and a half years and talked about her problems with her family, the demons slowly let go of her.

In February 2016 a friend founded a community football team, Zoe asked if she could take part. She liked the idea. “I had enough being weak” but she knew for this strenuous sport that she would need energy, pasta and potatoes – no diet. With the sport came the turning point: she slowly began to eat calorie dense food, put on weight, and felt better than ever before. And she became a high achiever.

Women’s football would still not be enough for her, she wanted to play more often. “Preferably against men” said Zoe “because they hit harder than the women”. The coach of the Cardiff Cobras, invited her to training practice, she pushed, clung, pulled players to the floor who were a lot bigger than her. Zoe shinned her knees and the men astounded. The trainer said he had never seen a woman with such force.

Less than three months later Zoe sat on the bus on the way to her first game and bit her fingernails “I had such a fear of failing” she said. “What if I couldn’t keep up, what if the others laughed at me” but Zoe kept up. Nobody laughed. As an opposition player illegally grabbed her face mask she pushed him away. “Stop that nonsense” she snapped at him, her teammates shouted “Good one Zoe”!

American Football gave Zoe confidence that she never had before. She said the sport unleashed a strength inside her that she would never had dared to dream. The eating disorders today seem absurd.

For the players of the Cardiff Valkyries and Cardiff Cobras Zoe is a wonder. Almost everybody has already spoken about her extraordinary story. And she continues. Only recently Zoe squatted 3x 115kg. And in the evenings she downs a pint – faster than any man on the team.

If you have been affected by an eating disorder help is available at

  • Daryl

    Having come across this article by a tenuous route (I’m interested in American Football and love analogies and stories), I thought this was a really inspirational story and really pleased that Zoe’s found a mechanism to cope and achieve high performance.

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