“The Process of Discipline”: Diet Culture and HBO’s ‘The Vow’

Restrictive eating and forced weight loss were tools of control in the NXIVM’s sex cult ‘DOS’. I can’t say I’m surprised.

Marquisele Mercedes
9 min readSep 30, 2020


Cover art to The Vow, a documentary series from HBO.

Please note that this article mentions cult activities, slavery terminology, extreme dieting, abuse, calorie counting, bingeing, self harm, and coercive sexual situations as are discussed in HBO’s ‘The Vow’.

HBO’s new documentary series ‘The Vow’ provides a carefully curated peephole into NXIVM, a corporate pyramid scheme that sold self-help workshops and was home to a sex cult intended to fulfill the desires and ambitions of its founder, Keith Raniere.

(If you’re planning on watching ‘The Vow’, this essay has spoilers. If you’re not planning on watching it, but want to know more about this tangled tapestry, read Vulture’s take on NXIVM.)

NXIVM’s sex cult was called DOS, a shortened form of Dominus Obsequious Sororium, or “lord over the obedient female companions”. High-ranking female NXIVM members called themselves “masters” and were tasked with recruiting women into DOS, who were called “slaves”. Before getting a clear idea of what DOS was or its purpose, recruits were forced to give collateral to ensure their silence about the group’s existence. They were lured in by the idea that they were joining an all-women collective that would help them be “better” versions of themselves and make a better world through improving one another. Collateral took many forms, including naked pictures, reputation-ruining letters or videos — even financial documents, like property deeds. Upon joining, recruits took a lifelong vow pledging their time, privacy, and loyalty to their “masters” and to Raniere. Some wore chains around their waists as a material reminder of this vow.

Members were then tasked with recruiting other “slaves” in a function similar to NXIVM’s primary business model, as well as providing even more collateral when demanded. Recruits into DOS were subjected to non-stop surveillance by those who recruited them (usually through messages and check-ins) and, for some, mental, emotional, and physical grooming for sex with Raniere, which was touted as some kind of fast track to enlightenment.