Afterthoughts: Naked Ambition

A documentary on hippies reminds me why Hawaii could use a few nude beaches.

Photo: linny Morris

I caught a recent screening of the fantastic, locally made documentary Taylor Camp, about the 1970s counter-culture community on Kauai’s North Shore. The film was warmly received by the crowd at the Hawaii Theatre, and during a Q&A with the producer, John Wehrheim, an audience member asked about the plans for distribution.

Thinking of the movie’s appeal to baby boomers—a Vietnam-era subject matter, stunning black-and-white archival photos, and a stirring score comprised of folk and rock songs—I whispered to my husband, “PBS!” The film would make a perfect episode for the show American Experience, for example. But as soon as the words were out, I realized how foolish I was. Taylor Camp is chockful of nudity. 

Taylor Camp was a clothing-optional place, so many photos featured in the documentary depict people enjoying beaches and waterfalls, even a game of volleyball, au naturel. The pictures were taken by Wehrheim, a professional photographer who spent the 1970s working on Kauai. He had decided Taylor Camp was a worthy subject, making images of its architecture, lifestyle and people.

So here are these artfully composed photos of beautiful, healthy bodies, yet in our current cultural climate, they are taboo. When I spoke with Wehrheim later, he noted that a few of the film festivals the movie had been invited to submit to had passed on it after screening it. They were okay with the female nudity, he said, but were concerned about the images of naked males and nude children. Wehrheim was puzzled, as “the film doesn’t have a prurient interest and isn’t the least bit pornographic.”

Photo: "Teri and Emma, Limahulu, 1977." Photo by: John Wehrheim, Image appears courtesy of the artist.

Why is an image of a naked human so powerfully unsettling?

The best answer I could find came from a radical publication …  USA Today. It wrote, “Probably because many people seem unable to distinguish nudity from licentiousness.”

True. For some Americans, nudity, regardless of context, suggests perversion, exploitation, destruction and godlessness.

But not to all of us, and the film raised another question in my mind: How is it that Hawaii has no legal clothing-optional beaches? Sure, there are well-known spots popular for nude swimming and sunbathing, but to do so, one risks being arrested.

Why not have a few spots that are designated as clothing-optional? Southern California has part of San Onofre State Beach devoted to the option, while at Black’s Beach, near San Diego, people can surf in the buff, if they wish to. Florida’s Miami-Dade County has Haulover Beach Park. Even mild-mannered Canada has Wreck Beach—five miles of government-approved, clothing-optional shore—in Vancouver. If any of the millions of visitors who go to these beaches each year were scarred by their experience, I couldn’t find any documentation.

“Well, I don’t want to be naked!” some might protest.


“And I don’t want to look at naked people!”

No problem.

Here’s how it could work: signage. If you walk along New York’s Fire Island, for example, you’ll come to signs alerting you that you are about to enter a clothing-optional area. If you walk some more, you’ll find a sign that tells you clothing is now again mandatory. It’s not a big deal—people just patronize the zone they are comfortable in.

We live in a state that’s so relaxed about dress code, the official shoe is a rubber slipper, board shorts are worn in restaurants and neckties are viewed with suspicion. Isn’t it odd that you can’t swim in the altogether without a park ranger ticketing you?

I hope you’ll see Taylor Camp (check the website,, for updates on screenings). If the joy depicted has you hankering for a skinny dip in the ocean, remember, times have changed and we’ve come a long way since the hippie era.

We have better sunscreen.

For more of Wagner’s writing, see her “Guilty Pleasures” blog.