Comment: Why those vaccine selfies are actually selfless

They may seem to brag, but shots of those getting shots can normalize and encourage vaccination.

By Maya Kosoff / Special To The Washington Post

When I’ve opened my Instagram feed in recent weeks, I’m not seeing the typical visual trademarks I’ve come to associate with the pandemic, like loaves of home-baked sourdough bread or small groups of socially distanced and masked people outside at a birthday party. Instead, my feed has lit up with pictures of people getting the coronavirus vaccine.

In one post, a woman wearing a T-shirt with a bandage on her left arm appears to be smiling under her KN95 mask outside a pharmacy in California. In another, a man celebrates by posting a picture of himself sitting in his car, an “I got vaccinated!” sticker clearly visible on the lapel of his peacoat.

The pictures are so ordinary but they feel so extraordinary. For most of the last year, even the briefest glance at my social media feeds has been a study in either pessimism or denial: Here the despair at how bad things have gotten, there the desperate attempt to prove that we’re living our best lives despite everything. But vaccine selfies seems to represent something else, something more like hope. They’re an admission that our lives have been as messy as the home-cut hair styles we inevitably reveal in them. And yet they’re also a sign that we just might be able to get things together again. After a year of misery, suffering and disaster mismanagement from every level of government, it makes sense that some people may be happy to see the end is in sight, and to celebrate by marking the moment with a picture.

Of course it’s easy to roll your eyes at the very idea of the vaccine selfie; and the formal selfie stations at some vaccine sites, in particular, are already causing backlash. Critics argue that posting a vaccine selfie when vaccines are still so hard to come by is unnecessarily boastful, making those who can’t get their hands on the vaccine resentful and highlighting inequities as people with better access to health care have an easier time getting vaccinated.

But people should not be dissuaded by the naysayers. In fact, vaccine selfies and clinic-provided selfie stations are great. From a public health perspective, in particular, they may help get more shots into arms, bringing an end to the way of life we’ve adapted to over the past year to stay safe from covid-19. Yes, we’re still early in the vaccine rollout, and the way vaccines have been distributed thus far has indeed been inequitable. But by posting vaccine selfies, people are normalizing vaccination and good public health practices. Vaccine selfies, like “I voted!” stickers before them, give people the ability to amplify their civic actions.

The basic criticism of selfies tends to stem from a generally sexist impulse; or, at least, from older generations making fun of narcissistic younger people who supposedly care too much about their appearance. And even the most earnest criticism of vaccine selfies seems tinged with the idea that people posting them are doing it out of some desire to preen and primp, or that the impulse to post is borne out of selfishness.

But the reality is that after a year of pandemic living, most people taking vaccine selfies don’t even look that good. Our hair is badly in need of a trim, our eyebrows, overgrown, could use waxing, beards are looking haggard, and we’re all in need of some sunlight. We’re all rough around the edges, at least by pre-pandemic standards. Sure, some people may still be bragging that they got to the head of the line, but for a lot of us the real goal of a vaccine selfie is, instead, to show our enthusiasm for the thing we’re participating in with everyone else. The images we’re posting of ourselves are evidence that selfies can sometimes be selfless, but even when they’re about showing off, they may be in a position to do some good.

In their banality, vaccine selfies also embody the growing sense that people are just getting vaccinated in the middle of their everyday lives, in pursuit of making all of our lives ordinary again. This may be one of the reasons that vaccine selfies can increase confidence in vaccines. If social pressure works to increase vaccination uptake, then selfies are a good way to subtly sway people who may be on the fence to get the vaccine. And if it happens to create a space for people to feel comfortable promoting public health and finally ending a pandemic, that’s better for everyone.

Anti-vaccine activists have aggressively spread all kinds of misinformation about the covid-19 vaccine online, ranging from unproven claims to factually untrue statements. Social media platforms have taken steps to combat this; on Instagram, for example, if you share any post with the word “vaccine” or “covid,” Instagram automatically detects it and adds a notification to your post linking to websites for organizations like WHO and the CDC. But vaccine skeptics who already inherently distrust national or international institutions will likely not remain unmoved by this information. Vaccine selfies, on the other hand, provide proof that friends, family members and acquaintances have safely taken the vaccine, even if that proof comes solely in the fact that they go back to posting about literally anything other than the pandemic in the hours and days immediately after.

By turning the vaccine from a faceless, scary thing into something dozens of people you know have received, vaccine selfies can open a dialogue and help normalize vaccines as part of everyday life. The coronavirus vaccines are still new: In January, nearly a third of American adults (31 percent) said they were planning to “wait and see” how it works for other people, according to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, and two-thirds of that group said that they could be persuaded to get vaccinated if they see that the vaccine is highly effective in preventing illness. Revisiting that question in February, KFF found that the share who wanted to wait and see had declined to 22 percent, even as the percentage who either had received or planned to soon receive the vaccine had increased from 47 percent to 55 percent. It would be silly, of course, to attribute this change to vaccine selfies alone, but they certainly can’t be hurting the positive trend.

Last week after receiving the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine in Brooklyn, I walked out of the clinic and onto the sidewalk away from others filtering into the vaccine clinic. I opened my camera app and held up my phone in selfie pose, my newly vaccinated arm exposed in the “cold shoulder” shirt I had found in the back of my closet, dated in a fashion sense but perfect for the occasion. I reflexively grinned under my mask and tapped the shutter button. Satisfied with the result, I tweeted out my own vaccine selfie and was met with a widely congratulatory response, and even some responses from others telling me they’d gotten the shot, too. I could have taken the subway home but I walked the 35 minutes instead, once again reacquainting myself with the strange feeling of hope I had been missing.

Maya Kosoff is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, focused primarily on issues related to tech, business, ethics, and labor. Previously, she was a tech reporter for Vanity Fair.

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