WE RECENTLY CAUGHT up with neuroscientist, mom, actress, writer and “grown-up girl” Mayim Bialik, PhD., to gain insight into her new book for teens, “Girling Up: How to be Strong, Smart and Spectacular” (Philomel; $18.99). The book, released in May, is geared towards girls ages 12 and up. You may know Bialik from her titular role in the ’90s sitcom, “Blossom” or currently as the four-time Emmy nominee and Critics’ Choice Award winner for her powerhouse portrayal of Amy Farrah Fowler on “The Big Bang Theory.” In fact, America’s top-rated comedy, currently in season 10, has been renewed for another two seasons, news that’s certain to delight Bialik fans, this one included. Intelligent, outspoken, sensitive and multi-talented, Bialik has also written two other books, “Beyond the Sling” and “Mayim’s Vegan Table,” and is expanding her online presence in an exciting new way.
Since you’re a mom of two boys who is likely “Boying Up” on a daily basis, can you please speak to the evolution of “Girling Up?” Obviously I’m a female so I get to speak from the perspective of what it was like growing up as me. But this book actually came about because I have a website called Grok Nation and I’ve written a lot about what it’s like to play a late bloomer on television, and in particular what it was like when my character on “The Big Bang Theory” was intimate with her boyfriend, her long-term boyfriend [Sheldon] for the first time. And Jill Santopolo, my editor at Penguin, actually she’s the one who approached me because of this article she saw that I wrote. … She thought it was really interesting that such a prominent person, a celebrity person, was writing about kind of something so intimate and especially sharing abut what it was like to be a late bloomer myself. So that was really where this idea was born. I’ve been asked to put my face on a lot of science books for girls, but this one feels like the most authentic expression of what I think the female experience is, which is everything. Everything from a scientific perspective, to an anthropological perspective, to understanding how other cultures see females, how we cope with difficult things. Everything from puberty to eating disorders, to making a life that matters.
Your book resonated with me, especially the parts about evaluating body image, eating well, healthy friendships, crushes, being a late bloomer and the need for coping skills. Can we talk about some of these? I think, in general, the idea was to bring to light a lot of difficult topics. It would have never occurred to me when I was 12, 13, 14—or even 17 or 18—to ask, how do you assess what’s a healthy relationship? So many of us have social interactions with other girls and other women in particular that can be problematic and we can’t even put our finger on why. That’s kind of the response I’ve been getting from a lot of grown up women. They’ve said, “Gosh I wish I had this book when I was a girl.” We have a chapter about what happens after high school, and it never occurred to me, like no one ever laid out for me what my choices were and what it means to go to college or graduate school and why some people go to a trade school. You know you keep going on these paths but I wanted a book that really understood all of the paths available. And some people are late bloomers and some people aren’t; both are okay. There’s no wrong or right way to “girl up.” But we really wanted everything in one book so that hopefully girls will start understanding each other better.
With six chapters ranging from “How Our Bodies Work” to “How We Love” to “How We Matter,” which topic could you have spent five more chapters on? I’m trained in psycho-neuroendocrinology so probably the puberty chapter. Moms of my age didn’t know a lot of this stuff when we were raising our kids …
“… for sure, I think that my mom learned a lot from reading this book as well. All of the chapters in theory could be their own book. I think again that’s the point of this book; we don’t have to pick one thing … This is a book about a little bit of every part of us. But in particular the puberty chapter, obviously. I wrote a thesis that was very long about a lot of those things.
You mention safe spaces and people for girls feeling down who need support such as a school counselor, a friend’s parent and places of worship. What do you think these particular places or organizations can do to reinforce “Girling Up,” to help nurture strong, smart and spectacular girls? This is a really hard one because a lot of this is about funding and the importance we place on funding and in particular mental health support for young girls and young boys. I think the more we pay teachers and the people who work in our schools, the more we can raise a generation of people who want to be part of that. It’s very difficult to encourage people to work in those fields when salaries are so poor. That’s a structural thing. In general, having more conversations and encouraging conversation among students, male and female, is very helpful. I think a lot of it is administrative and has to come from the top down as well.
Your book is honest and inclusive, addressing multiple faiths and places of worship… especially when approaching sexuality. How does your role as a Jewish woman in today’s society inform your open-minded philosophy? We wanted the book to be all the things that you just said. And Jill and I went back and forth on how much of my modesty and my social conservatism should reign supreme in this book. But we realized that it would not be realistic or in my opinion, responsible, to put out a book saying “Don’t have sex before you get married.” It’s simply not going to be received or perceived as relevant. So what we decided to do was give the pros and cons of different kinds of choices that people make and why, with a strong emphasis on an appreciation for waiting and making decisions later in life. And also giving the neuroscience reason that your brain needs time to learn and adjust and have good judgement that we often don’t have early in our teens, sometimes not until our twenties or thirties!
As a self-proclaimed outsider who marches to the beat of a different drummer, what helps you navigate your conflicting worlds of a public life, an academic life and personal life of motherhood? First and foremost, my religious faith. For me, having a purpose to continue the life that I have and the work that I do, because I feel like that’s my job, to figure out why I was put here. It’s a very strong force for me. And I’m also really blessed to have the support of a few very good, close, honest friends who keep me on track which is really important.
So that’s how you keep a healthy balance—relying on faith and friendships? Yeah, and I go to therapy every week. And I couldn’t imagine my life any other way. I talk about that very openly in the book because we need to remove the stigma.
How was writing “Girling Up” a cathartic experience for you? It forced me to tackle all aspects of my experience growing up. It encouraged me to incorporate all parts of me. And Jill really wanted science throughout the book so I had to find ways to think about things from a scientific perspective in ways that I hadn’t before. It was very healing. My father passed away and a very significant relationship ended during the writing of this book. Writing about all of these things has been very difficult but very powerful as well.
What’s on the horizon for you after the book, your tenth season on “The Big Bang Theory” and having two tween boys to parent? I’ve been expanding my YouTube presence. I have this website Grok Nation. But I also started making YouTube videos which are kind of like the essays that I write but spoken directly to the camera. That’s actually really taken off and we’ve hit about 100,000 subscribers, which is a very big milestone. The hope is to be able to bring more of the kind of content that people like in my writing to a broader audience and in a different format. I’m encouraging people, if they’ve never subscribed to a YouTube channel, to subscribe to my channel so that they can see the videos that I’m going to continue to put out. There are ones on there about science and religion and about why I choose to be vegan. The one about divorce has almost a million views so it’s very interesting to be part of the YouTube world.
What is the overarching message you want “Girling Up” readers to feel upon finishing the book? I’d like girls to be overwhelmingly impressed by the complexity of being female. I would like them to feel empowered to tackle their lives acknowledging all of that complexity, but also seeing the special qualities that they have that can ultimately transform the world.
Growing up in the public eye has afforded Bialik a keen perspective about people’s expectations of girls and young women and the challenges of growing up female in the 21st century. In “Girling Up: How to be Strong, Smart and Spectacular,” Bialik successfully addresses important topics in the six fact-filled yet intimate and accessible chapters using candor, science and warmth. Her wealth of firsthand experience will speak to and inspire young girls curious about themselves and the world around them.
Find Bialik on GrokNation.com and on social media at Twitter and Instagram @MissMayim. Visit youtube.com/mayimbialik for the videos she discussed and much more.
Ronna Mandel is a contributing writer to JLife. You can find her blog at goodreadswithronna.com.