Going from girl to woman isn’t easy. Just ask actress, writer and neuroscientist Mayim Bialik, who we watched — and loved — grow up on the 1990s hit television sitcom show “Blossom,” and now we watch — and love — as she plays the brainy Amy Farrah Fowler on the current hit television sitcom “The Big Bang Theory.”
Ms. Bialik takes that knowledge and puts her Ph.D. in neuroscience to work by blending scientific facts, personal anecdotes, and life’s wisdom to help tween and teens go from girl to woman, biologically, psychologically and sociologically, in her new book, “Girling Up: How to be Strong, Smart and Spectacular” (Philomel Books).
Ms. Bialik tackles six aspects of transitioning from girl to woman, and covers topics ranging from body image to nutrition, from relationships to handling stress and finding one’s passion and place in the world. She discusses everything, including first kisses, menstrual cramps, the importance of a healthy diet and exercise, modesty, taking responsibility and making choices based on knowledge and self-awareness.
Ms. Bialik, mother to sons, Miles, 11, and Fred, 8, who embraces her Judaism in practice, and in her role as an activist, shared some thoughts on “Girling Up,” which hit the number 2 spot on the New York Times bestselling list for young readers a week after its release, with About Our Children.
About Our Children: What was the impetus for your newest book, and can you explain what the clever phrase “Girling Up” means?
Mayim Bialik: I was actually approached to write this book after Jill Santopolo at Penguin saw a piece I had written for GrokNation.com (my website) about what it’s like to be a late bloomer and play one on TV. I was specifically writing about the episode of “The Big Bang Theory” where Amy and Sheldon have coitus for the first time. She loved how gently I handled issues of modesty and intimacy and asked me to write a book from that perspective. I asked her if I could expand it out to include the entire female experience and she said yes. “Girling Up” is a sort of play on the expression “grow up” and “man up” but I made it into an active verb since the process of going from girl to woman is indeed an active one.
AOC: With your many professional, creative, academic and personal accomplishments you have become a role model for girls and young women. Who were the strong, smart, spectacular women who served as your role models?
MB: That’s so nice! My mom is the first woman who comes to mind. She is a really strong and brave woman and she taught me to be the kind of women my grandmothers also were. I am very domestic, detail oriented and organized. She’s really fierce and resourceful and graceful. My grandmothers left Eastern Europe to make a new life in America and their genes and their struggles live on in me. I admire comediennes like Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett and Tracey Ullman very much. I was raised also with the stories of the women of the Torah and those values and lessons made me who I am, as well. Of course, there are women trailblazers in all fields and in particular, women singers like Neko Case inspire me as an artist.
AOC: You spent your critical tween and teenage years in the public eye in the hit TV series, “Blossom.” How did that affect your Girling Up?
MB: I think I had a special view into the way women are potentially objectified, and had a lot of attention on me in my developing years so I was very aware of the treatment of women for sure because of those experiences. But I also had all of the “normal” things to worry about as a girl in America separate from my fame.
AOC: In the book, you talk about modesty, pride in one’s body, and respect for privacy. How have your Jewish values influenced your perspective on these issues?
MB: My Jewish values lend a lot of support for my belief in boundaries, modesty (for men and women), and privacy. I took on a lot of halachic structure in college and tznius in particular strengthened me. While “Girling Up” is not written from a religious perspective, Jewish readers will absolutely see those notions as the backdrop for my emphasis on separating expectations others have on you from individual choices especially surrounding sexuality and how we present ourselves as women.
AOC: Why do you think girls haven’t traditionally pursued science, and do you think that is changing in the wake of STEM-centered curricula now in many schools?
MB: Historically, women have been underrepresented in all fields really, and although we are making advances in so many ways, careers such as those in the sciences historically have not been as flexible for women who may want to raise families and work in careers which lend themselves more to part-time flexibility, for example. I also acknowledge that the female and male brains are different and girls tend to be drawn to social and verbally oriented careers and activities. The notion of the lone scientist in a laboratory may not appeal to many girls, but we need to expand how we think of science careers in particular so that we can attract more girls.
AOC: The chapter on stress was particularly instructive — and also very personal. Is there a way for parents of girls — and boys — to better help their children manage stress?
MB: I know what works for my boys as a parent. We do a lot of talking openly and honestly about feelings. And I am careful not to burden my children with my struggles, but I also am very open with them about ways I feel challenged because of stress, social anxiety, general anxiety, and complicated feelings. We make sure to have conversations that build our relationship up rather than introducing fear or anger since those can make children less likely to reach out when they do need help. Physical activity and taking walks together is a great way to reduce stress and make room for comfortability in interactions with my boys, I have found.
AOC: I love the way you — in a tone throughout the book that is warm and never preachy — inform and yes, warn, about the indelibility of posting online. Do you have any thoughts on how girls can play it safe and smart on social media platforms?
MB: Thank you. Honestly, limiting time on social media is a good idea for kids and adults alike. It is indeed so addictive. My book talks about the impact of sharing parts of yourself online that you may someday regret. You should not send suggestive photos of yourself at all in my opinion; even sexy or suggestive texting is something I would want my daughter to stay away from. I know that may not be realistic, but it’s a really different world than it was when I was a girl and I think face to face friendships are still the most significant for the most part.
AOC: Ultimately, what do you hope your girl readers will take away from this book?
MB: Knowledge about your body, brain and development are your birthright to have. Once you know more, you can make smart decisions and lead the strong smart and spectacular life you deserve.
Heidi Mae Bratt is the editor of about Our Children.