After a successful childhood acting career that included her role in the film Beaches (1988) playing Bette Midler’s character as a girl, and starring in the NBC sitcom Blossom (1991–1994), Mayim Bialik left the spotlight to attend college and went on to complete her Ph.D. in neuroscience. She returned to TV in 2010 as Amy Farrah Fowler on CBS’s hit comedy The Big Bang Theory and has received four Emmy nominations for her work on the show. Bialik has now written her first book for young readers, an empowering guidebook for teens addressing all the aspects of growing from a girl to a woman entitled Girling Up. PW spoke with Bialik about growing up both on and off screen, and writing for young readers.
Why did you want to write this book?
I wanted to write this book because I lived this book. I have been asked many times to write science books for girls. And I get why people would justifiably want to capitalize on the fact that I’m a scientist in real life. But writing about the female experience is much more interesting to me.
I was also inspired by the book Woman: An Intimate Geography by Natalie Angier. She looks at the female experience as a whole. For girls, everything about this experience is something they should understand. I wanted to write a book about how to become a woman.
What inspired the term “girling up?”
It’s something my editor Jill Santopolo and I danced around. I loved the phrase “girl up” but there was already a book with that title. But I was writing about growing up as a girl, and I came up with “girling up.” Jill said, “Oh my gosh, I love that idea.”
As a teenager, you stepped away from your acting career to pursue your education. What was that transition like for you?
It was very difficult. Even though my show [Blossom] wasn’t a top 10 show, it was popular enough that I was very recognizable. I walked off of people’s television screens and onto the campus at UCLA. I didn’t want to be in the public eye any more at that time. I didn’t want to worry that people thought I should look and behave a certain way. I wanted to be appreciated for what was on the inside. I’m not saying that actresses who stayed on that path are shallow or anything like that. But it was not fulfilling for me any more at that stage in my life.
I was not a natural science student. Then I fell in love with biology at 15 and I wanted to become a scientist. It took some time and a lot of hard work for me to catch up.
But the shiny, sparkly notion of “you can do anything!” made me nauseous when I was younger and still makes me nauseous today. At that time in my life the decisions I was making were very deeply thought out: Who am I? What kinds of careers are open to me? What’s my place in the world? You’re never too young to think about what you want your life to look like.
You’ve written two other advice-oriented books for adults, Beyond the Sling, about attachment parenting, and the cookbook Mayim’s Vegan Table. How did you approach the tone of this book for younger readers? What kind of voice did you want to take in speaking to girls?
It was a challenge. Even when I was a child I never spoke like a child. And my sons, who are 8 and 11, don’t speak like children either, I’m told. Both of my parents were English teachers and my father was a writer and a poet. We were raised in the Jewish tradition of argumentation, and dialectic, and debate. So to write a book without being able to use my full vocabulary was difficult for me. I write essays and blog posts all the time where I have full command of my vocabulary. But I wanted my tone in the book to be relevant, appropriate, and not talking down to people. I didn’t want to sound like their mother saying, “This is why you should wait until you’re married to have sex.” I tried to strike a conversational tone, like the way I talk to my kids. There’s enough of a sense of humor in there, I hope, so that it doesn’t sound preachy. I had my 11-year-old read through it. He wasn’t thrilled with the parts about female anatomy, but I asked him, “Does it sound like something you’d want to read?” He said it sounded like me, and that he understood it.
Conceptually, I wanted to present all sides of a behavior. I didn’t want people to think that I was saying my way was the only way. And I give 1,000 percent credit to Jill for helping me sustain that tone. Jill originally reached out to me about doing a book after she read a post on my blog GrokNation about the episode of The Big Bang Theory when my character, Amy, and her boyfriend, Sheldon, have coitus for the first time. I wrote about being a late bloomer in real life and Jill told me she really liked the way I spoke about my experience.
Your religion is important to you. Did it have an influence in your writing?
People don’t have to do what I do. But I think it’s important to explain why there are schools of thought that give support to different philosophies. People have joined together in religious communities for many years and we may wonder, why do people do that? What are the healthy things we can all take from that? If it’s the support found in that kind of community you want, how do you get that? If it’s the sense of calm religion can provide, how can you get that? And in the book I write about some ways people can apply different aspects of organized religion to help them cope in difficult situations.
This is not a political book at all. But there are things we can all agree on. Everyone has a right to know how their body works and to know how to feel empowered about their body and their place in the world.
You are raising two sons. What are you teaching your boys about girls and “girling up”?
I’m teaching them to believe in the exceptional strength and uniqueness of boys and girls. As a scientist mom I have explained to them the hormonal differences between boys and girls. And in their own experience, they know that I am a boyish female but that there are women who get manicures and shower twice a day. That’s just not me. They know that their dad knows everything about musical theater and that there are many different kinds of heterosexuals. I’m teaching them to revere the differences between men and women and look for similarities between the two so there is not injustice.
I also teach them that there are boundaries when it comes to respecting our bodies and that no means no. I talk to them about respecting other people’s decisions. And they know about female anatomy. I don’t want to shroud the female experience in secrecy, so I talk to them about it, but in an age-appropriate way, of course. I think the more we normalize this kind of conversation, the better.
What are you working on now?
I’m not working on anything else related to this book right now. I wrote a book about being female, but I know I don’t want to publish a book a year. This project was all-encompassing. I looked at the human experience and growing up female. It’s what I would have wanted to know when I was growing up. In general, I love this book. It was very difficult and cathartic to write. People think I’m super confident, but I worry about what people think of me. This is not me slapping my face on a book to make money. I wanted to share information that no one told me when I was growing up. No one explained to me why some people go to college, or not, and others choose to go to trade school or enter the military. And these are all decisions that are deeply considered. I wanted girls to know about the different paths that are open to them. This book covers everything about my life as a woman: as a scientist, as a woman in the public eye, and as a mom.
I am working on other non-book related things. I want to increase my YouTube presence. I post things on my channel that I think deeply about. And being a mom is a full-time job. I also post all the time to my blog GrokNation. When I first was coming up with the idea, people wanted me to pick one thing to focus on. And I said “How about it’s a site that covers everything?” Why should women have to choose?
Girling Up by Mayim Bialik. Philomel, $18.99 May 9 ISBN 978-0-39954-860-4