There is a study in the current edition of Evolution and Human Behavior which triggers a storm of associations for me. One association is of Michael Jackson and a 70s TV show, another of a Phil Collins, his band Genesis, and a line in the song "I can't dance", and yet another pertains to Allison Stokke's absence from Wikipedia. I guess I will leave it to you to figure out the meaning of these Rorschach-like associations, but before I release you into psychoanalyzing me, I would like to re-enact the said study with you: To do so, I must ask you to take a look at the stick figure drawing to the left below.
Why do you even care to look behind either of the boxes in the first place, you ask me? Well it is because the picture is not just of some random person, but of an opposite-sex single; a potential mate!
So, ask yourself now: Supposed you are yourself single, and you are asked to evaluate whether another person might qualify as a potential mate for you; you are asked to make this judgment based on looks alone; would you want to look at the person's face, or at the person's body?
Or simply put: What do you consider the more important measure of physical attractiveness: a person's body or a person's face?
Although, there is no guessing to your personal answer to this question, at least according to data that Jamie Confer, Carin Perilloux and David Buss collected from 381 students at the University of Texas, there are interesting general trends:
For one, men and women seem to typically opt for the face as the more important cue of a potential mate's physical attractiveness. Given the choice to uncover either the face-panel or the body-panel in the stick-figure image, female participants chose to uncover the potential mate's face 69% of the time, while men did so 61% of the time. (In case you are wondering about the motives of those 31% of females and 39% of males that chose to remove the body-panel rather than uncover the potential mate's face, be assured that all participants were informed that the boxes were hiding a picture of a FULLY CLOTHED opposite-sex mate).
Besides this general preference for face-based information in judging a potential mate, the study found that the relative importance of the face compared to the body depended on whether participants were asked to consider the potential mate for a long-term relationship or for a one-night stand. Here, the data shows that men, when trying to assess whether the person on the hidden picture would be a good match for a one-night stand, assigned greater relative preference to viewing the body-panel, than did men who were considering a long-term relationship. This relationship between commitment level of the relationship being considered, and the relative preference for viewing face-based versus body-based information, did not show in the data for female participants, as can be seen quite illustratively in the figure below:
The study by Confer and colleagues is in line with other research that has shown the face to be a more valuable predictor of attractiveness than is the body.
The study further "provides evidence that for men, but not for women, priority shifting takes place based on the pursuit of short-term and long-term mating strategies.".
For men, the degree to which their choices reveal the face to be a more important indicator of attractiveness seems dampened when asked to consider short-term mating strategies.
Of course, it is not at all clear from the study, whether the observed trend is stable across different age groups; much less across cultures. More importantly, the typical situation in which humans find themselves evaluating potential mates allows us to access face-based and body-based information simultaneously. How this information is integrated when presented together might be very different from how people decide to view it in the forced choice paradigm used in this study. But then again, in an interesting study as with good looks, sometimes you just can't have everything.
Main Reference: Confer, Jaime C. (2010-09) More than just a pretty face: men's priority shifts toward bodily attractiveness in short-term versus long-term mating contexts. Evolution and Human Behavior, 31(5), 348-353. DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2010.04.002