Face-ism is the term used to describe how the ratio of face to body in an image influences the perception of the person in that image. In several studies, it has been found that this ratio is higher for male than female images in the media, leading to the term body-ism.
Pictures where the head takes up more of the visual space have a higher face-ism ratio and have been shown to focus attention on a person’s intellectual and personality attributes. Pictures where the body takes up most of the images have a lower face-ism ratio and focus attention on the physical and sensual attributes of the person depicted. Several studies have shown that male pictures tend to have a higher face-ism ratio than female pictures.
The face-ism ratio is calculated by dividing the distance from the top of the head to the bottom of the chin by the distance from the top of the head to the lowest visible part of the body. A picture without a face would have a ratio of 0.00, while a picture which consisted only of face would have a ratio of 1.00. On average, high face-ism ratio pictures are rated as people with higher intelligence and ambition and as more dominant than those with lower face-ism ratios.
These findings come from research into media gender bias (a very relevant topic today). Researchers found that across magazines, movies and other media, men had higher face-ism ratios than women in the way that they are generally portrayed. These findings were consistent across cultures and consistent with gender-stereotypes. There is no agreement why this happens, except that it is the unconscious result of biological and cultural drivers of behaviour.
A typical example of this bias was found when students were asked to draw pictures of a man or a woman (randomly assigned) and were told that they would be marked on the quality of their drawing. Both genders drew men with more detailed and prominent faces and women with fuller bodies and less detailed faces.
For researchers and designers this presents a challenge to consider what biases may influence you in developing and testing personas or visual communications. However, it is also true that if you want to emphasise the thoughtful side of a person, then use a higher face-ism ratio, and if you want to emphasise more physical aspects then use a lower face-ism ratio. This applies to both men and women in the images and in the viewing audience!
Universal Principles of Design by Lidwell, Holden & Butler
“Face-ism: 5 studies of sex-differences in facial prominence” by Archer, Iritani, Kimes & Barrios, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1983, vol. 45, p. 725-735