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.
The longer women in DOS stayed, the more likely it became that they would be branded with Raniere’s initials in a ceremony that required them to strip naked, get in a car with other recruits, be transported to an unknown location while blindfolded, and physically restrain each other as they took turns under a hot iron burning their flesh.
Weight loss and dieting have been minor, but recurring themes in ‘The Vow’. In NXIVM, these (incredibly gendered) activities were encouraged by key tenets of Raniere’s teachings, specifically that personal evolution involved not allowing oneself to be controlled by base urges. To achieve states of complete control, members would train themselves to reject bodily signals of hunger, exhaustion, discomfort, and even fear. Learning to ignore something as fundamental as the need to eat was framed as a sign of enlightenment.
Most episodes of ‘The Vow’ briefly mention calorie counting and restrictive eating, which often precede further evidence of women being involved in DOS. However, the show avoids a sustained look at these manifestations of diet culture until Episode 4 (“Building Character”) when we are introduced to “Jane”, an anonymous woman who left DOS. Through Jane’s story, we learn more about how deprivation is woven into NXIVM’s approach to self improvement.
“Master,” a message asks under a photo of a small colorful plate, “may I have 205 calories?”
“Master may I have 75 calories?”
“Master may I have 45 calories?”
In Episode 4 of ‘The Vow’, “Jane” discusses how she was recruited into DOS and, eventually, had a sexual relationship with Raniere after losing a substantial amount of weight.
We don’t know who Jane is, but we know what she wants to accomplish. She feels stagnant in her personal and professional development. She wants to make the world a better place. She is up to the challenge of changing herself to try and achieve that result. We are shown a list of items that includes completing a “kickass” short film and finding a community of likeminded people to feel at home among. “Weight loss” and limiting “maximum daily calories” is on this list beside career and personal goals. This list is supposed to serve as a visualization of the things Jane wants to work on under the watchful eye of her “master”.
According to Jane, her recruiter quickly latched on to her weight loss objective as a start to her “journey” towards self-betterment. Jane’s recruiter (under the guidance of a high-ranking NXIVM member, Allison Mack) told Jane that weight loss and calorie restriction was the best first step towards improvement; they would serve as tangible measures of Jane’s limitations, growth, and dedication to “improving” herself, as well as loyalty to the vow she took when she joined DOS. Women in DOS were regularly restricted to around 800 calories a day, but a former high-ranking member said some women stayed around 300. Somewhere in this range of numbers, Jane rested the entirety of her hopes of becoming a different, “better” person.
‘The Vow’ recreates Jane’s messages to her recruiter asking if she can eat food. We see how strictly she counts the calories she consumes, but also bear witness to how surveillance looms over her day. If she is not responsive or respectful enough, if her unquestioning acquiescence wavers for a moment, she is punished — by her recruiter or by her own hands. Jane may force herself to fast the next day if she is not satisfied by her progress with the things on her list or, if her recruiter is displeased with her, she may receive spankings. Deprivation is a punishment on par with physical blows and an aspiration on par with personal fulfillment.
‘The Vow’ forgoes any critique of diet culture to focus on the power dynamics at play between “masters” and “slaves” in DOS, as well as Raniere’s sexually predatory behaviors. To an extent, I understand this choice. Dieting and restrictive eating are commonplace and socially encouraged. Weight loss is never a cause for collective concern, but collective celebration. As Da’Shaun Harrison once wrote: “We are only so quick to celebrate a person’s “lost” weight because we are taught that the weightiness of fat peoples’ bodies are inherently burdensome; cross-bearing; back-breaking; onerous. Not on fat people, but on the people who surround us. Therefore, there’s no regard for whether or not a person is well when they “lose” weight because our societal desire — our only desire — is to not have to concern ourselves with the Ugliness of fatness; it doesn’t matter how it’s misplaced or “lost.”
Jane put weight loss as a goal on her list before she was pressured into DOS’s restrictive eating regimen. She was already submersed in diet culture, already indoctrinated by its claims that she could be a better person, lead a better life if she lost weight. But the way DOS and Raniere weaponized diet culture’s historical love affair with morality and evolution can’t be understated; it is a contemporary reiteration of diet culture’s righteous roots.
As detailed in Christy Harrison’s Anti-Diet book, Sylvester Graham was a Presbyterian minister and public speaker who helped mainstream the idea that food was related to health and ailments. Graham was a proponent of abstinence in all its forms — from sex (in and out of wedlock), to alcohol and caffeine, to all kinds of foods (meat, yeasted bread, condiments, sugar, spices). This was, in part, a manifestation of his belief that eating the wrong foods caused him health issues in his youth (even though he’d been the victim of an extremely traumatic childhood that likely contributed to his chronic exhaustion and bitter outlook on life).
The other foundation of this cut-and-dry diet was the old Protestant belief that all forms of excess contributed to physical, mental, civil, and moral unrest. Graham didn’t advocate for weight loss, but for distance from the “overstimulation” that indulgence would create. Self-control and denial were the foundations to a virtuous existence. “Gluttony, and not starvation,” he wrote in 1838, “is the greatest of all causes of evil.”
Keith Raniere didn’t preach for virtue or godliness, but his path to enlightenment looks the same as Graham’s. It is the same as Weight Watchers’, the same as Jenny Craig’s, the same as SlimFast’s. It is the same as any enterprise’s claim that shrinking your waist will give you your life back, but also revitalize it in all kinds of mysterious and fantastical ways.
It is the same because it is infallible. It doesn’t need to be any different.
At one point, Jane says, “I’m taking on the process of discipline because I want to trust myself to do what I say I will do, no matter how bad or uncomfortable it feels.”
I don’t think there is a fat person alive who has not taken on the process of discipline. It typically isn’t as ceremonious as pledging yourself to another human being, but it doesn’t have to be. It can happen while you’re in bed at three in the morning and there is sweat between your thighs. It can happen while you’re with your friends and you can visually measure the difference in the space you take up to stand and sit. It can happen when your mom mentions your growing size during a visit or when a pair of pants get worn down in the crotch. If you are fat, your response to evidence of your existence may be to commit to the process of discipline. Diet culture demands that we do this, frequently and in earnest, to strive towards full humanhood.
The first time I took on this process of discipline was when I was seven and I decided to stop eating lunches at school. I didn’t last very long, but I didn’t have to. The process of discipline is a door in the floor that leads to another room and another door and another room. When I was nine, I tried to purge after dinners. When I was thirteen, I starved on alternating days. I remember congratulating myself in the mirror when I successfully completed a week only to fail a few days later. On the day I received my first acceptance to grad school, I got halfway through planning a six-month weight loss plan before stopping. None of the attempts lasted long, but they did not have to. They did not stop. It does not stop. The process is a slow death. It is a sea of molasses.
I don’t know who Jane is, but I don’t have to. I know what happens next. She tells us how she stops resisting, how she endeavors to weigh less and less, how she disconnects from gravity and time and herself after sex with Raniere. She slips into a pool of static and hunger and I slip in with her. By the end of the episode, a high pitch breaks through the fog and she finds her way out of NXIVM and DOS and all is supposed to be well.
But the process of discipline is not a NXIVM or DOS teaching. They did not create the context that praises the ever-shrinking body. Everywhere she looks, there will be evidence of her unruly, contradictory existence. If she watches ’The Vow’, she will see images and clips of Raniere putting his hands around lithe female bodies, kissing delicate lips in open view. Sometimes, they are sitting on the floor of a volleyball court with their legs crossed and necks craned, admiring Raniere in mesh shorts and sweatbands while he talks about the nature of truth and life. They are laughing and smiling and sharing intimate details with him, but her attention will be on the defined sharpness of their jaws, the lean meat of their arms.
Jane can leave the cult, but it is not yet her time to leave the world. Nor is it mine. How much longer will we last before we cease to resist?