Many of us knew her as Blossom. Some also know she has a Ph.D. in neuroscience. Twenty-four million Big Bang Theory fans know her as Amy Farrah Fowler. Two people know her as mom. Her name is Mayim Bialik, and the latest title she's added to her list of accomplishments is author of the book Girling Up: How to Be Strong, Smart and Spectacular.
This book, aimed at helping girls and young women navigate the pressures of the day, isn't her first dip into cultural conversations. Bialik is also founder of GrokNation, a website dedicated to facilitating deep conversations on contemporary issues.
And deep, dynamic conversations she has had.
When Bialik’s character on the Big Bang Theory, Amy Farrah Fowler, lost her virginity with longtime boyfriend Sheldon last year, Bialik felt it was more than just a momentous occasion. Raised in the Jewish faith with the belief that sex was for marriage, Bialik took the moment to comment at GrokNation on the nature of being what society would call a late bloomer. “I knew that lots of people had sex well before marriage, and I was the kid and teenager who just stayed confused about that for most of my young life,” she wrote. “I was a very late bloomer, and I felt a lot of shame about that. Now that I am a grown-up, I am grateful I was a late bloomer. It protected me from a lot, and if I could do my teen and young adult years again, I would not change a thing.”
Not long after that post published, Bialik was approached to write a book delving more into this concept of speaking to girls about empowerment despite the conflicting messages girls face today. Her book was released this month by Penguin. I spoke with Bialik to discuss the pressures girls and women face in Hollywood and beyond—how far we’ve come, and how far we have to go.
Mary Rose Somarriba: Last month, we saw your viral video about how we should stop calling women “girls.” When it comes to other culturally common things we may not notice that infringe upon equality, what are some other things you think could be added to the list?
Mayim Bialik: Yea, I was speaking to someone about this recently. Women are often encouraged to smile—"Why aren’t you smiling?" and that sort of thing. That rarely happens to men, at least in my experience. The standards for women’s beauty are also very different.
MRS: How do these standards for women’s beauty affect your views on privacy and modesty?
MB: I think these are all very personal decisions, but I think there are a lot of things we assume we have to do as women, in terms of modifications of our body, clothing, makeup or plastic surgery, which is becoming more commonplace especially for younger women. A lot of what I hear is, “well, if it makes me feel better I should do it.” But while that may be legitimate, I think we have to think about what our notion of feeling good is based on. And we need to look at all the things that are often presented from the lens of what men think women should look like.
MRS: How have you kept a perspective of dressing for yourself versus for others?
MB: For me I took on a lot of the restrictions on my clothing before I was in the public eye, which made it easier, because I had these things in place before I was in Hollywood facing these pressures as an adult.
MRS: From your experience in Hollywood and your knowledge of neuroscience, what effects do you think objectification of women in media has on us?
MB: I think that the way we talk about women, the way we frame women, in media, the way they’re presented, in advertising and in movies—those things affect how we view ourselves, and the way we view relationships. I think about the movie/book 50 Shades of Grey which is so confusing. It’s really troubling to me that that kind of relationship is romanticized. If you remove the bondage, he’s really a stalker. Not to zero in on just that movie, but I think that’s an interesting example, because they put violin music on it and a woman who’s attractive, and suddenly that whole dynamic is romantic.
MRS: And not to zero in on that movie either, I remember the actress in it saying she felt uncomfortable in those scenes, and I’ve heard it as a recurring theme in other actresses’ interviews. How common is it for actresses to be in scenes in which they feel uncomfortable?
MB: That happens all the time for women.
MRS: All the time?
MB: Yes, well, the patriarchy is going to have its hand in about everything that we do, as long as that has been what is in demand. The fact is, that is what people like to watch. And my feeling is the more we empower women to only do what we’re comfortable with, the less we’ll see it. There’s certainly not the same pressure on men. I mean in The Leftovers I think of all the men, Justin Theroux is the only one who did not show his penis. There’s a sense of a hierarchy, that if they’re big enough of an actor they can opt out. But it’s not happening that way for top female actors. It’s not the same.
MRS: As a mother of two, how have kids affected your sense of womanhood?
MB: I think becoming a mother helped me fully appreciate my existence and my role as a woman. I know that’s not true for everyone. And I chose to be home with my children in the first years of their life, which was a difficult decision. But I felt very empowered by that. I felt very empowered exclusively breastfeeding my children—I felt that was a real expression of my identity as a woman. I felt natural birth, and in particular my home birth, was very empowering as well. Being a mom is my favorite job.
MRS: As a neuroscientist, and given the ongoing national conversations of equality for women in STEM, what are your thoughts on how things are looking for women in terms of equal opportunity?
MB: It’s such a big topic, but, to boil it down: I think we’ve come a long way; I think we have a very long way to go. The fact that there are women every single day who are being assaulted and victimized and not taken seriously—not to mix those things—those things happen because people don’t respect women, and it spills over everywhere. And whether we’re talking about consent. Or the way the United States treats women who give birth (“here’s six weeks, good luck”)—that’s astounding. We have a country that has astounding infant mortality rates. These things are about women’s health and how we treat women. I also think the mental health of women is neglected.
MRS: You wrote at GrokNation last year: “Sex is about intimacy, even if you think it’s not. Trust me, I’m a doctor.” What does neuroscience have to say about the interconnectedness of sex and intimacy?
MB: The hormones released from intimate relations—be it kissing, cuddling, or sex—are very powerful and they are hormones that for women in particular lead to feeling bonded and connected to someone. That's what they are made to do! That's not to say you'll want to marry everyone you have sex with, but there are very strong chemical reactions that go on in our brains and bodies as women in particular when we are intimate with someone. Many people choose to "shut that off" but your hormones often indicate that sex isn't always "just sex" in many meaningful ways.
MRS: What would you say to girls and women who don’t receive much in the form of belief systems from a young age about sexual limits, or who simply don’t get the space to determine their personal limits before being inundated by the pressures of society?
MB: This is a big question! For those of us raised in old-fashioned homes or in a time when sexuality was much more restricted, the sexual liberation of this generation can seem scary sometimes. It's so different from what we are used to. Things like STDs, pregnancy, and heartbreak and the ups and downs of sexual relationships we are navigating are real things that happen, and it's important to be tuned into your needs and beliefs when you start a relationship of any kind, I believe. It's never a bad idea to slow things down, ever. If someone is worth it, they'll wait. And it's also OK to rethink the speed of things even once you have been intimate—a lot of women are afraid they'll lose someone by slowing things down but in fact, if you feel better about your choices, you're likely to have a more meaningful experience anyway. And what you see on TV, in movies, and even in music is often an exaggerated notion of sexuality; the freedom of entertainment makes it seem like the norm, but there are a lot of women who aren’t like the women in music videos!
Photo Credit: James Banasiak