Whether you grew up with her (and loved her!) as the titular character on the hit ’90s show Blossom, or look up to her now as late-blooming genius Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler on The Big Bang Theory, Mayim Bialik has probably influenced your life. Now, Bialik has released a new book for girls, titled Girling Up: How to Be Strong, Smart, and Spectacular — out today — that tackles everything from puberty, to sex, to life after high school in a straightforward, comprehensive, and age-appropriate way. And honestly? It’s the book we wish we’d had on our bedside tables growing up.
Written in what Bialik — who is a neuroscientist, in addition to being an accomplished actress and founder of GrokNation.com, NBD — describes as an “academic” style, the book speaks to girls where they are: confronting major changes, and possibly feeling a little (or a lot) overwhelmed. We were lucky enough to chat with the PhD and mom of two boys about why she wrote this book, her own experience as a late bloomer, and her biggest crush on the set of Blossom.
HelloGiggles: Why was it important for you to write this book?
Mayim Bialik: There are a lot of reasons: I was approached to write this book by an editor at Penguin because she read an article that I wrote about modesty, and being a late bloomer and playing one on TV. But ultimately I wrote it because I think there’s information in it that was missing when I was a kid and that girls deserve to have, especially in the 21st century when things are very different than they were when I was growing up.
HG: Who is this book for?
MB: I like to say that it’s for anybody in the 10 to 18 age range, or anybody who’s ever been in that age range, or loves anybody in that age range. Obviously there’s information in it that somebody might not be ready for, but I’ve heard from many grown women that they learned a lot from reading this book, especially about hormones and things like that. So I definitely think there’s something in there for everyone, but it is written more for a 10- to 18-year-old audience.
HG: What was the hardest chapter for you to write?
MB: The hardest was sex and dating; that was the chapter I was most afraid to write. I was very shy when I was younger, and I was a late bloomer, and I didn’t know, necessarily, how to write for girls who weren’t. But there’s information that needs to be presented in this kind of book, and we had to find a way to present that.
HG: I really enjoyed that chapter. I thought it was very thorough and presented in an age-appropriate way. It made me wonder how you would suggest talking about issues around sex and intimacy with girls who have faced sexual assault, harassment, or other forms of early sexualization that can change their relationship with their bodies and their sexuality.
MB: This is a very, very important topic and one that my editor and I definitely talked about how to best address, because that is a very specific set of information. What we did is we introduce the notion of consent, and we introduced the notions of understanding your body, and knowing the limits around your body. And there are sections in the book that talk about difficult things, and how to know when behaviors become problematic. But we didn’t specifically address that population in this book, more for the sensitivity of people reading it who may not be familiar with those things and might not know how to process that.
HG: You also write in the book about how the internet and social media have affected the way we connect with one another and develop relationships, and, too, about the influence of media and social media on girls’ self-esteem and body image. I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about how girls can make the internet work to their advantage on those fronts, both in terms of connecting with others and regarding body image.
MB: I think that the internet can be a space of real alienation and isolation, and it can breed a lot of bad feelings about yourself — and I’m speaking from complete personal experience. So I think one of the things that’s really heartwarming is that sites like [HelloGiggles] are really seeking to build bridges between those feelings and the people who are having them, and really making it okay to explore those feelings and see what you can do to feel good about yourself, and to feel appropriately comfortable and confident in your body.
I think for me, I don’t know that I would have survived middle school — without begging my parents to homeschool me — with social media being present, because I really don’t think I would have been able to stand the kind of scrutiny that many girls, in particular, are under with social media being what it is, and the media in general. I really, without trying to sound like a fuddy-duddy mom, think limiting time on the internet is very important. I can only look at so many pictures of women that I’m comparing myself to and still feel good about myself.
HG: What kinds of things have you struggled with personally in terms of consuming media and social media?
MB: There are definitely times when I feel compulsively glued to my phone for really no reason other than I want to know what’s going on, or how many people have liked a picture. Or how many people have liked someone else’s picture. And a lot of times, I really have to shake myself out of that and say, “What is this need? Does it really matter right now, and who cares? And what are the things I’m putting aside to direct my attention towards this?” So that’s a lot of what I struggle with. And I absolutely look at pictures, and even though I know they’re photoshopped, I know that other people are looking at those pictures and not knowing that they’re photoshopped and thinking “That’s what I’m supposed to look like.” That’s what goes through my head a lot.
HG: What kind of relationship do you let your 8- and 11-year-old sons have with the internet and social media?
MB: Almost none. They don’t have phones, they have no screen time without me or their dad sitting there with them. We’re not really a “search the internet” kind of family. There are things we look up on the internet, absolutely, and they really like watching Rhett and Link of Good Mythical Morning [on YouTube], but that’s something that’s very recent in our lives. We’re talking a couple of episodes a week. But they don’t really know anyone on YouTube, I don’t know anyone on YouTube. They know that I’m on YouTube, and they like to watch my videos. They know that I have Instagram, and they know that I don’t post their faces on Instagram, and they know also that it’s Mama’s job to build up a social media platform, because that is a lot of my job right now — building that audience and being able to do good things, which is ultimately what I hope to use my platform for.
HG: I’d like to turn to politics for a second. I’m guessing you would agree that we’re living in a climate right now that’s not very friendly to women and girls. Is that fair to say?
MB: Honestly, I don’t think the climate has been friendly to women and girls for all of human history, but I think we’re seeing it played out in a more public arena. We’re seeing language and leadership that is actively and unabashedly campaigning against the rights of women, so yes, I would absolutely agree.
HG: I’m wondering, given your experience in all fields — as a mom, as a writer, as an actress, as a PhD — how do you deal with those issues with your own children, and how might you suggest parents talk to their daughters about the current political climate?
MB: I think being honest about the issues is very important, and I think [when I’m] presenting what I believe to my children or to other young people that I speak to, I present what I believe in a context, meaning I don’t just say, “I didn’t vote for Trump, I think he’s a dodo.” What I say is, “These are the values I was raised with, the Democratic Party has always been aligned with my Jewish values and with my liberal and progressive values, and those are the reasons why this was my candidate.” [So I] emphasize the positive aspects of my identity, and then place what I don’t like in opposition to that.
I want my children to know that we don’t get to paint with the broadest brush that we have. We get to look at individual people and issues and the cabinet, and we get to have opinions about them. But I will not allow my children to be the kind of kids that walk around and say, “All Republicans are stupid, everything is stupid about conservatives.” I want them to really understand the issues and what’s meaningful to them. What I want them to know is that we make choices that work for us, that we believe are compassionate, that we believe are good for our bodies, and everybody gets to do what they want.
HG: I would love to know more about the term “girling up.” How did you come to that, and what does it mean?
MB: My editor at Penguin came up with the phrase “girl up” — kind of like “grow up,” a pun on that — [a play on] the connotation of what’s expected of you when you grow up, but from a female perspective. And I really liked the idea of making it a verb, and making it active. That this was a process that we go through to become a woman from a girl.
HG: I love that. Now I’d like to ask a couple of random questions, if you don’t mind. First, I would love it if you’d share your first period story.
MB: Oh my God. I don’t remember a lot of the details, but I was almost 18. My mother was a very late bloomer, and I literally didn’t grow breasts or hips or a derriere until I was well into 16, almost 17. My breasts grew so quickly I went from an A cup to a full C cup — I have stretch marks to this day. I barely remember the transition; one day I was flat-chested, the next I wasn’t, is what it felt like.
I had to go to the doctor and have exams to make sure that I had ovaries, because when you’re into your 17th year and you don’t have a period, they start worrying. And sure enough, I was almost 18 [when I got my first period], and I literally spent from the time I was 11 until almost 18 waiting — thinking it was going to happen any. day. That’s a long time to wait.
HG: That’s so stressful!
MB: Yeah, and I come from a house — my mother was raised very religious, my mother comes from an Orthodox family — where we literally never spoke about it. Ever, ever, ever. Ever.
HG: So where did you get information about puberty and menstruation?
MB: I had a book [that I got in] Sex Ed when I was in 5th grade and 6th grade, so I was 10 and 11, and I kept that little book. It was put out by Playtex tampons, and it was called Changing. I still have that book to this day. I would flip through it just to try and remember, “What should I be looking for?” But I never knew to even say to my mom, “What are the indicators?” For a good five years after having Sex Ed, I didn’t even have any primary sexual characteristics that would indicate I might get a period, and here I was waiting every day.
HG: Were you filming Blossom all during those years, too?
MB: Blossom was 14 to 19. And actually the first episode of Blossom that we ever did, Phylicia Rashad played my mother in a dream sequence, and Blossom gets her period, and she’s a motherless teenage girl and has to go buy tampons. Giovanni Ribisi played the guy selling her tampons at the store, and I had never had a period in my life — and was years away from having one!
HG: A lot of firsts on the set of Blossom, it seems! You say in your book that your first kiss was on set, too, right?
MB: Don’t even!
HG: What’s your clearest memory from shooting that show? It was one of my favorites growing up.
MB: There’s a lot! I actually just spoke yesterday to Michael Stoyanov, who played my older brother, and we were reminiscing — I actually interviewed him for my website, just to let people know what he’s been doing and what his life is like. He was kind of one of my first crushes in my life. He was 19 when the show started, and I was 14, and I really looked up to him. He was very smart, and he knew great music, and he was just so cool. I remember those years very fondly because of my relationship with him.
HG: I would love to know, finally, what are your biggest goals for this book?
MB: This is something I really committed to writing because I believed in presenting this information for, hopefully, the good of girls like me who might be different and might be confused about a lot of things about growing up female. So my hope is that people will buy this book and talk to their kids about it. My hope is for girls who don’t have moms, or don’t have present moms, that they’re able to get information that they can’t get, that they deserve to have about their bodies, and about mental health, and about decisions they make that will affect them for the rest of their lives. And my hope is that people don’t see this book as a partisan book. This is not a political book, it’s not a religious book, I don’t have an agenda. I’m a scientist, and I wrote a very academic-style book about all aspects of being female with a set of information that you don’t need to be a scientist to understand.
Every girl should know her menstrual cycle, that should be a human right. So if I can at least be part of that, that would feel like I really had a significant role in empowerment.